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Tue August 21, 2007
The Golden Door
Nobody ever said Chaplin was boring.
By John DeSando, WCBE's It's Movie Time
So now I have a very good idea what my immigrant grandparents went through traveling by boat from Italy and through Ellis Island aka "Golden Door" in the early part of the twentieth century. Emanuel Crialese's Golden Door amply describes the primitive living circumstances that motivate these adventurers to leave home, the cramped weeks aboard a steamer, and the indignities at the island. In fact, the director is so precise that most of the tale lumbers through the details of living and then processing at Ellis to the detriment of engaging story telling.
The only relief from the boredom (like the voyage) is the occasional Fellini-like impressionism: Characters swimming in milk more than once. Arguably the director doesn't prepare the audience for the abrupt transitions into the formalist episodes, but I felt relief.
By contrast Mira Nair's recent Namesake is superior in telling an interesting story about identity and the new world, and Chaplin's Immigrant (1917) makes the boat ride a model of slapstick and the restaurant scene not only humorous but telling about the challenges immigrants inevitably face. Nobody ever said Chaplin was boring.
Charlotte Gainsbourg stands out as Lucy, a husband-seeking Brit whose literate background makes her useful, and whose role as a strong, beautiful woman allows the film to explore the prejudices against women. She is unforgettable when she and other women sit in a room awaiting the magistrate's permission to marry a man often the woman is meeting for the first time. That a woman would need a man to qualify for entry into America plays out even today given Hilary needing Bill to make her political career in the twenty-first century.
Agnes Godard's cinematography is often the salvation of a scene, for instance when she catches two mountain climbers with rocks in their mouths deftly negotiating a rock-strewn hill top to arrive at a shrine. Mostly she photographs the climbers close up to keep the adventursome surprise. Then she reduces them to just more rubble as she pulls back into a major bird's eye view losing them slowly just as their journey across the Atlantic will reduce them again.
It's a slow journey.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's It's Movie Time, which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com