“Golden Door,“ Emanuele Crialese’s third feature, is a profoundly poetic exploration of an immigrant’s ordeals, adventures and dreams.
Crialese came from Italy to New York in 1992, intending to stay for a few months and take a quick film course at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, but the short film he made landed him a full scholarship that lasted for several years. He lived on the Lower East Side, in tenements occupied by generations of immigrants.
“Golden Door” was insipred by Crialese’s Lower East Side experiences. Set in the late 1900s, the story follows Salvatore Mancuso and family who leave their hardships in Sicily to seek a better life in America.
“My inspiration came when I visited Ellis Island and saw close-ups of people looking into the camera as though it was a strange instrument. These intimate images made me fantasize about their past, their culture. I started researching and never stopped for five years,” says Crialese.
“I read letters they wrote home to get an idea of their worries. I wanted to make a film about the kind of man willing to cross the ocean to an unknown place, as if he was going to the moon. I wanted to show the heroism of people who came here as voluntary slaves and made their dreams come true. They made America what it is.”
“Then, there’s the existential condition of an immigrant who says basta, I don’t feel well in my land and can’t go on. He leaves his land to go to a place which will never be his. First generation– it’s a kind of limbo, caught between the past and the future. I’d felt the same thing, even if mine was another kind of immigration.”
MERIN: How so?
CRIALESE: They came before information was so available, and knew nothing of what to expect. But I’d visited NY before I came here through movies, especially Martin Scorcese’s movies. He’s such a visionary, such a personal director, I thought NY was like “Taxi Driver.” Martin Scorcese was first to describe Italian-Americans, the second and third generations, in NYC. So, I met my future land with him.
MERIN: Americans watching Scorcese films sometimes have stereotypical perceptions of Sicilians….
CRIALESE: Absolutely. He works with stereotypes. But Italians, when they became Americanized, remained attached to their roots and became stereotypical. They wanted to show they’re still Italian, but with an American attitude. So they became stereotypical Italian-Americans. He makes them more cliché, increases the paradox. That’s what I like about his films. He describes extreme characters falling into Hell, hoping for redemption. It‘s so Catholic-Italian. Hell, redemption.
MERIN: Does that play in your films?
CRIALESE: I’m completely different. I’m Italian– 100 percent. Not American-Italian, not Italian-American. So, I portray the Italian angle, the first Italians who came here. I go backwards to before the time of his Martin Scorcese’s characters who are the sons or nephews of mine.
MERIN: At times your detailed approach to your characters and their story seems almost ethnographic. Did you study anthropology?
CRIALESE: No, but I really like it. I think I studied it without knowing what I was studying. It’s a matter of gathering evidence. Most of my evidence came from letters I read. I got to know where these people came from, what they wore, their habits, what they were used to. I read so much that when I had to make a choice about a scene or character, it was as if I already knew. It’s a sensation, not something rational. For this film, I studied so long that information somehow got inside me and the script flowed in a certain way.
MERIN: Mixed with the realism of Sicily’s harsh terrain and stifling steerage environment are images that are biblical– the river of milk, for example. What’s the significance of these images?
CRIALESE: I describe the mythology of the American dream and the promised land. Because American people adopted this image of promised land– it‘s our promised land, where there’re rivers of milk and honey. Manna falls from the trees. These are imagined images of America. I produce them visually– in my own way, of course, because it‘s not a river of milk, it’s a sea.
MERIN: Why at those specific moments in the narrative?
CRIALESE: It’s when Salvatore dreams, imagining something that doesn’t exist. These people have a huge imagination. They were in the fields all day and would see ghosts– like fishermen at sea. They told stories to their children– stories were part of their baggage. They went to America wanting to believe that, yes, they will find giant carrots in a river of milk. That’s the vision of Salvatore, but we don’t start the image with him– because he has to enter his own dream. That’s why I don’t show America– for me, America’s the concept, not a concrete state of being. Then, when Salvatore leaves the milk, he’s entered his dream and is living it. So he’s in the milk whenever he flashes that his dream is coming true.
MERIN: Cinematically, the film is exquisitely beautiful. How much do you maintain control over image?
CRIALESE: 100 percent. For me image is everything. In fact, the first version of my script is always mute. It’s only visual. Dialogue, to me, has to be a song. But people have to understand what’s going on through moving images. That’s my obsession. I set the frame, then the director of photography takes over.
MERIN: In contrast to sequences where characters swim in milk, there’re scenes when so little light’s on screen, it’s difficult to see what’s happening….
MERIN: If image is so important, why be so obscure?
CRIALESE: It’s real. Boat steerage, for example, was very dark. I wanted to show the texture, the lack of air. The audience feels oppressed when they’re in the dark and have to do some effort to see. I wanted to them to travel with Salvatore. So I made a dark, stark atmosphere. That‘s why.