Golden Door

English Title: Golden Door

Original Title: Nuovomondo

Country of Origin: Italy

Studio: Miramax Films

Director: Emanuele Crialese

Producer(s): Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Fabrizio Mosca

Screenplay: Emanuele Crialese

Cinematographer: Agnès Godard

Art Director: Laurent Ott, Filippo Pecoraino, Monica Sallustio

Editor: Maryline Monthieux

Runtime: 112 minutes

Genre: Drama

Starring/Cast: Vincenzo Amato, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Aurora Quattrocchi

Year: 2006

Volume: Italian

Set in 1913 in the Sicilian countryside, Nuovomondo begins with the protagonist, Salvatore Mancuso, spitting blood while he climbs an arid mountain barefooted. After seeing photo-manipulated postcards that portray America as a land of abundance, the widower Salvatore decides to gather his two sons, Angelo and deaf-mute Pietro, as well as his elderly mother Fortunata, and sell all their possessions in order to try his luck in the new world.  While waiting to board amidst other peasants, the family encounters Lucy, a mysterious and refined British woman, who, knowing that only married women can be granted entrance to America, asks Salvatore to marry her. The dangerous voyage aboard an ocean liner is presented as only one of the many challenges faced by the migrant family. Once in New York, the family is put in confinement in Ellis Island where they succumb to numerous examinations and imposed transformations such as change of name and marital status until they are told whether or not the members of the family meet the requirements to enter the new world.


At the turn of the twentieth century, numerous Italian immigrants risked their lives by embarking on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a better life. Whilst Hollywood films from Wallace McCutcheon’s The Black Hand: True Story of a Recent Occurrence in the Italian Quarter of New York (1906) to The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) have largely explored the theme and constructed the image of the Italian immigrant usually as the stereotypical ‘mafioso’, mainstream Italian cinema has rarely engaged with the stories of suffering and loss amongst Italian migrants. A notable exception is Emanuele Crialese’s Nuovomondo which offers a critical revaluation of this neglected past, by deconstructing some dominant representations of the migrant. Vincenzo Amato,  featuring in his third film by Crialese (Amato also stars in Respiro (2002) and Once we were Strangers (1997)) delivers a remarkable performance as the naïve and desperate Salvatore Mancuso who envisages a prosperous life in the new world after looking at  photo-manipulated postcards containing images of giant vegetables and money trees supposedly found in America. The film masterfully expresses how those images shape Salvatore’s imagination and offers a critique of the manipulative power of images in activating desires that are unattainable. The narrative juxtaposes harsh reality with surrealistic sequences where characters swim in rivers of milk, holding oversized vegetables.

The original title, Nuovomondo, which literally translated means ‘new world’, implies the binary between old and new which is represented in the film by two contrasting female figures, Salvatore’s mother, Fortunata, who is reluctant to leave Sicily and the mysterious English lady, Lucy, who marries Salvatore in order to gain entrance in America. The stunning cinematography contributes to the film’s distinctive approach to the archetypical passage from old to new. Geographical displacement is evoked by the powerful sequence where the ocean liner pulls out of the harbor whereas the movement towards cultural transformation is suggested by the language shift from strict Sicilian dialect to English spoken dialogues. The experience of crossing the Atlantic Ocean is presented as dangerous and chaotic and Ellis Island, one of the furthermost transit stations in migration history, is depicted as an unkind place of transformation and separation where the immigrants are either granted entrance to the new world or sent back. The English title ‘Golden Door’ refers precisely to the geographical and metaphorical borders represented by Ellis Island as well as to the 1883 poem by Emma Lazarus engraved on the Statue of Liberty
Rather than relying on the traditional nostalgic tone employed by the majority of films that deal with migration in the twentieth century, Crialese makes striking use of parody as well as subverting the official and mainstream versions of this historic event. In one of the most memorable sequences of the film, where the characters are posing for a family photo, they are asked to place their heads behind the cutouts in order to hide the fact they are dressed in rags. This imparts a tragi-comic tone to the narrative and it is precisely this deconstruction of conventional images of Italian migration that makes the film unique. In capturing the character’s feelings of expectation and loss involved in the process of displacement, Nuovomondo strips away the iconography of the successful and powerful Sicilian immigrant. If in Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) the spectator knows what the future holds for the young Vito Corleone during his experience in Ellis Island, the narrative of Nuovomondo ends in confinement, undermining Salvatore’s American dream. The film creates perhaps the most touching cinematic account of the traumatic experience of Ellis Island (also known as ‘Island of tears’) since Robert Bober’s documentary Ellis Island Tales (1980).

Author of this review: Natalia Pinazza