Emigr?s Anatomy: Golden Door explores the Ellis Island experience.

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Golden Door is a story of hope that’s often freighted with a sense of hopelessness. Italian writer-director Emanuele Crialese’s portrait of transatlantic emigration at the turn of the 20th century focuses on the journey rather than the arrival, depicting the bleak conditions that the Mancusos, a poor Sicilian family gambling on a move to the New World, must endure if they want their stab at the American dream. The problem is that some of them seem to be questioning whether they do in fact want it every step of the way: Transported on an overloaded wagon to the ship, they and their fellow Italians shiver against a ruthless wind. They’re then herded through an assembly line of doctors while shrill charlatans try to force them to buy miraculousl all-purpose products. Then it’s off to the boat’s chambers, which are stacks of casket-size beds that guarantee you’ll get to know your neighbor. Throughout the film, the masses are literally huddled.

Crialese doesn’t completely rob these historical travels of their romance, though, and the charismatic characters and bits of fantasy he injects into the script are what keep Golden Door from becoming a slogging retro-reality check. The film begins with Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), the widowed Mancuso patriarch, weighing the decision to head for the States the most logical way he knows how—by offering stones to God and asking for a sign. When one of his sons, the deaf-mute Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), approaches him with doctored photos of a giant onion and American trees blooming with coins, that’s all Salvatore needs to pack up Pietro, his other son, Angelo (Francesco Casisa), his sharp-tongued healer mother, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), and two girls from the village (Federica de Cola and Isabella Ragonese) and leave his farmer’s life behind. Salvatore is the only one certain about going and becomes exasperated with his misbehaving sons, especially when they goof around with clothing they’ve been given for the trip. “We have to arrive looking like princes!” he tells them.

They may have new duds, but even at their splashiest, the Mancusos can’t compare with Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an elegant Englishwoman who slips into the shot when the family is getting their photo taken for identification purposes. Lucy can’t board alone and needs to be promised to a man in order to enter America. Her backstory is left a mystery, but the fact that she doesn’t belong there is as clear as her fair skin. (The director makes a point of showing the gloves that protect her hands.) Men leer at Lucy and make indecent proposals; Salvatore, however, keeps an eye on her that’s both protective and only mildly flirtatious. He, therefore, becomes the target of her red-tape-inspired affection.

Crialese’s film—less an editorial on immigration than a reflection of what some of his ancestors endured—is at times stunningly spare, but it still manages to be a more substantial work than his previous effort, 2002’s Respiro. The story doesn’t require much dialogue (making the actors’ expressiveness that much more impressive) or effects to convey the difficulties the emigrants faced: A storm, for example, is never seen from the outside, and the carnage isn’t spoken of during the nonetheless devastatingly quiet aftermath. The creaks of the ship are often the only soundtrack to scenes of the packed travelers as they wish the time away in their increasingly dirty clothes. Cinematographer Agnès Godard manages to make some of this melancholy beautiful, however, particularly her lingering overhead shot of the ship leaving port, the gap between the throngs on deck and those left behind slowly widening. As the horn blows, every single passenger looks up, their faces tenderly taken in by the camera.

The challenges aren’t over when the group arrives, either. Humiliating interrogations and tests await. (“Lack of intelligence is genetic, and contagious in a way,” an officer tells a questioning candidate.) And in one of the more compelling sequences, the women are raffled off—with naturally horrified expressions—to American men. But contrasting the grimness is Salvatore’s unyielding grip on thoughts of the fantastic. Pleasantly surprising scenes of money falling from the sky or Salvatore swimming in a river of milk (which one passenger muses must exist in America) brighten the realism and bring a smile to Salvatore’s face whenever his faith in his decision wavers. And, just like smarts were apparently once thought to be, these flights of fancy most definitely are contagious: There’s a bit of sadness at Golden Door’s end, but before it can seep in, a terrific closing shot once again shows that river of milk and all who happily end up partaking in it.