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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Land of Milk and Honey

    If the new strictures put on travelers at airports by Homeland Security are annoying, just thank your lucky stars you weren’t an immigrant a hundred years ago at Ellis Island.

    This seems to be one of the underlying allegories of the film ‘The Golden Door’ (‘Il Nuovomondo’, lit. ‘The New World’ in Italian), along with the idea that in a sense, not much has changed in all this time in the way we treat immigrants and non-Americans.

    The film centers on the story of two sets of immigrants aboard a ship to Ellis Island from the south of Italy. One is a family from Sicily, the Mancusos, whose lives are scratching the bottom of the barrel when they finally decide to go to American and find those purported ‘trees full of money.’

    The other is a lonely British woman, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (‘The Science of Sleep’), traveling alone, wearing beautiful, luxurious clothes that obviously set her apart from her poor Italian counterparts.

    The news of a foreign woman traveling alone quickly circulates on board the ship, and soon tall tales proliferate that Lucy — the Italians call her ‘Luce’ (‘light’ in Italian) — is in need of a husband in order to enter America.

    Lucy, however, before leaving Italy, has asked Salvatore, the patriarch of the Mancuso family, to take her under their protection while traveling, something Salvatore undertakes with gusto, astounded as he is by Lucy’s beauty, so very different from that of the girls ‘back home.’

    Eschewing typical conventions that set up the story for the viewers, the film reaches out to its audience in different ways, alternately horrifying us with ultra-realistic depictions of the conditions aboard the ships that brought poor and rich alike to the New World and delighting us with fantasy sequences involving rivers of milk and fields full of giant-sized carrots.

    There are moments when the story of the characters gives way to pure meditations on the immigrant experience, and the viwer is transported back in time to listen to a plaintive southern Italian folk song or to cringe as officials at Ellis Island ‘test’ the intelligence of the incoming immigrants with logic exams that make no logical sense to the Italians whatsoever.

    Although, in the end, Lucy and Salvatore are able to make their way successfully into the New World, along with Salvatore’s son and brother, Salvatore’s mother, a tiny, ascerbic woman who refuses the examinations and tests, decides to return home. The film ends inconclusively in that we never see the New World the characters have toiled so hard to reach.

    However, the film is not about that. It is, instead, an unflinching look at the harrowing immigrant experience of the early 20th century, as well as the equally harrowing conditions back home that forced so many into a New World that was not especially anxious to receive them.

    It is also an homage, of sorts, to our own hardy ancestors, who wanted something better and came after it, as well as a reminder that immigrants now are no different from those who became the backbone of America, in that they all want a better way of life from the one they left behind, no matter what it takes to get there.

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