Writer-director Emanuele Crialese (Respiro) returns with an unfortunately pretentious, prolonged look at the Italian-American immigrant experience. Starting with a literal uphill climb and ending with its characters bobbing in a river of milk, Golden Door is all too successful in evoking the simple-mindedness of its immigrant naïfs and the interminability of the Atlantic passage.
Cinematographer Agnès Godard frames the striking visuals, but if this is cinematic poetry, it's of the Rod McKuen variety (and, on occasion, jarringly matched to Nina Simone songs). The uphill climb—first silent, then accompanied only by ambient nature sound—demonstrates Crialese's technical proficiency and establishes a visual motif (feet), but also sets a ponderous tone that's never suitably redeemed. Soon, Crialese reveals his central gag: that the Italian farming class hears tell of flowing milk and honey, money trees, giant produce and livestock, and other assorted dreams in America.
Chasing the dream, a boatload of immigrants, including widowed farmer Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) and wife-seeking Brit Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), board a westbound vessel and squat in squalid quarters. The production design of the ship and its intimidating destination is impeccable, but Crialese doesn't seem to know what to do with his characters, aside from using them as props (a sorrowful tangle of bodies below decks in stormy weather). Vincent Schiavelli, in his last feature film, makes little impression; Filippo Pucillo fares slightly better as a deaf-mute boy no doubt designed to evoke Giulietta Masina (though no comparison is due). Stronger actors might have anchored Crialese's stylistic meandering between dour realism and flights of fancy, but the bland cast offers too little.
The film's most effective passages take place at Ellis Island. The filmmaker cannot help but elicit sympathy in the scenes of a bewildering battery of contagion and intelligence tests, the capricious rejection of undesirables, and tyrannous bureaucracy that pushes the immigrants to absurd lengths. Still, Ellis Island is, by now, well-trodden territory, and Crialese fatally fails to enliven his characters. Repetitive and unintentionally humorless, Golden Door is a decidedly middlebrow Miramax import, Martin Scorsese endorsement nothwithstanding.