On bare feet, carrying rocks in their mouths, Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) and his oldest son Angelo (Francesco Casisa) climb a very rugged mountain in Italy to the base of the wooden cross at the top. They take the blood-crusted stones out of their mouths and ask God for a sign. These Sicilian peasants want to know whether or not to sell all they have for passage to America. Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), Salvador's mute son, arrives with postcards showing a land of wealth and abundance in the Land of the Free. They have their sign. Everyone begins packing except the matriarch of the clan, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), who is a healer and wise woman in the community. She has no need for external riches, but is eventually convinced to join her family on the journey. Two villagers, Rita (Federica de Cola) and Rosa (Isabella Ragonese), promised to unmarried men in America, join them.
These rural folk are stunned when they see the chaos, speed, and hugger-mugger of the port city. They are unprepared for the voyage but climb aboard the ship after passing through all the requirements and questions. Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a single woman, decides to travel with them although it is obvious from her fashionable clothes that she is from a higher class than theirs. Rumors soon spread about her. It seems that she is trying once again to gain entry into America but to do so she has to find a potential husband. On the passage across the Atlantic, the ship is tossed on wild waves, and the passengers in crowded quarters in the hold are badly shaken.
Golden Door is written and directed by Emanuele Crialese and in two vivid scenes he captures the mystery and the adventure of the journey. In the first, an overhead shot shows a sea of heads; slowly the ship pulls away from the shore, and two groups become apparent, one staying and one going. In the second, the ship arrives in America but no one can see the land since Ellis Island is covered in fog. It's a perfect metaphor for everyone on board who is traveling blind, animated by hopes for a better life of financial prosperity but with little idea of what really awaits them.
The passengers are herded like cattle from one room to another, given medical check-ups, and then a series of aptitude tests to determine whether or not they are fit to enter America. The ordeal proves difficult for both Pietro and Fortunata; the old woman is less than enthusiastic about this brave new world than the others. Salvador, however, is in high spirits, thanks to a suggestion by Lucy that he finds to be both a miracle and an answer to his prayers.
During the journey, Salvador imagined America as a land where money grows on trees and someone can bathe in milk. Director Crialese uses magical realism to convey these immigrants' yearning for a new world of opportunity. As today's Americans consider immigration policies and their own attitudes toward immigrants, they would do well to see this movie about these Italian peasants and what coming to the new world means to them.
The DVD has an introduction by Martin Scorsese and a featurette on the "Making of Golden Door".