Over the years countless movies have set about to portray different facets of the American immigration experience. Two of my favorites―1982’s Sophie's Choice and Barry Levinson’s 1990 dramady Avalon—focus on the European immigrants of the 1940s. Completely different in nature and tone, Sophie's Choice is the far darker of the two, a tale of lost lives and the emotional consequences of being a survivor.
Picking up Sophie’s less-than-perfect life some time after her arrival, with flashbacks of her horrific concentration camp years, it is light-years away from Avalon—a somewhat candy-coated version of life after Ellis Island.
In between these far-different bookends sits a small 2007 Italian film called Golden Door. Filmed in Argentina, and with nowhere near the star power of either of the above films, it is powerful in its simplicity. Writer/director Emanuel Crialese spent close to eight years researching this courageous film which takes us from the small Sicilian town of Petralia to a freighter bound for America at the turn of the twentieth century.
In the opening minutes of the film we meet Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato), a thirty-something widower who wavers between the security of life as he knows it, and the possibility of a better day for himself, his two sons (one of whom is a deaf mute) and his elderly but strong-willed mother.
After asking for and ostensibly receiving a sign from above, Salvatore barters his few possessions (a couple of goats and donkey) for four third-class passages on a ship bound for America and a bit of used clothing. “These boots used to belong to Giovanni Gramigna: a scoundrel with a heart of gold.” says the trader, as he hands over his second-hand goods. Worn and tattered, they are the first of many firsts the Mancusos will experience as they make their way to the new world.
It is a world they know little about. Illiterate and naïve, they have only heard tales and seen novelty postcards of a place some say has rivers of milk, vegetables the size of wagons and trees laden with golden coins. They have no concept of the vastness of this mysterious new land, having only the confines of their peasant village as a source of comparison.
Their only tie to America is Salvatore's identical twin brother, who left Sicily for the new world some years before. Though the family has not heard from him since, and has no idea where in America he is living, Salvatore is confident that they will find him. “Of course we’ll find him,” he replies to his doubtful son. “He looks exactly like me.”
And so they begin their journey, deep in the bowels of the ship, men in one windowless, cavernous room, women in another—hundreds of people squeezed into a place so dark they can barely see the person sleeping an arm’s-length away. One can only imagine the stench. No wonder they escape to the wet but open deck at first light.
The only scenes I can think of that are even slightly reminiscent of Golden Door’s shipboard sequences are those depicted in the 1997 epic, Titanic, where pre-iceberg footage depicts poor but happy travelers singing and dancing their way across the Atlantic, oblivious to the danger that lies ahead. You will, however, find no dancing on this ship, where the seas are rough and the living conditions close to unbearable. And while this vessel does not wind up at the bottom of the ocean, some of its passengers do, unable to endure the first of what we presume were many alarmingly stormy nights at sea.
Avalon is a much easier movie to watch and enjoy, and I have done so many times. Here, shoes are plentiful, and industrious newcomers can earn a living breaking them in for more prosperous folk. Over some one hundred-and-twenty-six minutes a Jewish immigrant’s story unfolds, and the nation’s along with it. We enter the age of television, discount pricing and suburban life. Opportunities come knocking, but at a price, which, I suppose, is the story behind each of these tales, where some pay far more than others.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Golden Door is the fact that it was written by a contemporary Italian film maker. Just about all of the films I have seen about coming to American and Ellis Island have been told from an American perspective. This piece offers a decidedly different view.
Crialese spent seven years researching the project, reading, among other things, hundreds of letters dictated by the illiterate immigrants to letter writers and sent ‘home’ to their anxious families. His view of Ellis Island is devoid of Kodak moments. It is rather a place that is anything but welcoming, where those who are deemed unfit are unceremoniously sent packing, and loveless, pre-arranged marriages between strangers of disparate ages are the order of the day.
Prior to watching this film, originally released as Nuovomondo or New World, my image of the intake process involved a brief physical examination followed by a Custom’s-like check to see that papers were ‘in order’ and that someone in the US would vouch for them. Golden Door’s depiction is quite different, offering a far more humiliating and degrading process.
Uncomfortable to watch at times, it is a stark contrast to the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming prose. “This is not a holding station” observes one new arrival, “It is a laboratory.” “I thought you were looking for illness and contagious diseases here,” says the sole British immigrant” to her inquisitor. “Unfortunately, m’am,” he replies, “it has been proven that lack of intelligence is genetically inherited and it’s contagious in a way. We are trying to prevent below average people from mixing with our civilians.” “What a modern vision” she replies dryly, and one can not help but think of a similar vision gone awry.
In the end, Golden Door leaves the future of its characters to our imagination. Who will leave? Who will stay? Who will find happiness? Who won’t? The writer offers few hints about life after Ellis Island, save for a final fantasy sequence. Such dreams aside, Golden Door is a dark and lonely tale, and as I watched the film unfold I could not help but wonder what indignities my grandparents and their siblings endured in order to walk through those tarnished doors. Hopefully, things have changed for the better.
Three movies, three different takes on the American immigration experience of times past. Forgive me for not writing more about Sophie's Choice and Merle Streep's incredible performance, or Avalon, which was so lovingly written and performed. Both movies have much to offer, and should be on everyone's 'must see' list. But unlike Golden Door, these movies enjoyed a wide release and subsequent praise here in America, while the Italian film (honored though it was outside "the States")appeared on considerably fewer screens, with far less fanfare.
The object of this blog is share such finds with those of you who enjoy watching the off-beat, small-but-significant movies that didn't have the promotion, distribution or recognition they deserved. Golden Door is, at least in my opinion, is one such film.
Now for a couple of updates—
Wouldn’t you just know it. Days after posting my last entry, GSN pulled “What’s My Line” from its line-up. They do this periodically, moving it to weekends only, then back again for another seven-days-a-week run, then off again, then on again, and so on and so on. Hopefully, this uniquely different time capsule will resurface shortly.
And on a happier note—
HBO is about to premiere Grey Gardens, a dramatized version of the 1973 documentary on April 18th at 8 p.m.. Starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as Big and Little Edie, with Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie-O, it should be interesting, in that the movie begins decades before the documentary.
The sets and costumes are supposed to be wonderful, and those who have seen the film say that Jessica Lange did a formidable job in her characterization of Big Edie. They were not as generous with their praise regarding Barrymore’s portrayal of her daughter, who was, by far, the more outrageous of the two women. I suggest that you watch the Albert and David May documentary before taking in the Hollywood update. That way you can make your own comparisons and get a better feel for (to borrow another movie title) the way they were.
One thing is certain - the way they were impacted the fashion industry for years to come. Want to make a bet that a whole new wave of Edie-inspired upside down skirts and sweater scarves is already in the fashion pipeline?
To read (or re-read) my blog on the 1973 documentary, scroll down to my January 2, 2009 entry, entitled "A Grey Area."