In a film filled with stunning images, Crialese opens with a great one: An impoverished father, Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) and his teenage son Angelo (Francesco Casisa) scramble up a rocky hillside outside the northern Sicilian town of Petralia Sottana, each carrying a large stone between their teeth. With their lips torn and bleeding, they drop their offerings at the hilltop shrine of the Virgin Mary and Salvatore begs the Holy Mother for the answer to a momentous question: Should he, like his twin brother before him, immigrate to America? Just at that moment, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), Salvatore's younger, mute son, arrives bearing discarded postcards from his American uncle, each one a fanciful trick photo attesting to the wonders of life in the land of plenty: a gargantuan chicken towering over a man, a wheelbarrow barely containing a supersized onion. Clearly it's the sign Salvatore has been waiting for, and he immediately sets about selling off his livestock, acquiring "new" shoes and clothes actually filthy castoffs from the town's deceased for himself and his sons, and convincing his obstinate aged mother (Aurora Quattrocchi), an old-world healer who's lived her whole life in Petralia Sottana, that something better awaits her in the United States. Salvatore agrees to escort two young women (Federica De Cola, Isabella Ragonese), whose marriages to men in America have been arranged by the local don (Filippo Luna), and at the crowded dock on the Italian coast he meets a third woman in need of companionship: Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a mysterious, expensively dressed Brit who, shockingly, is not only traveling alone but has booked her passage in the cramped, overcrowded steerage with the rest of Europe's tired masses. The journey is a difficult one, but the real challenge awaits them at Ellis Island, where experts await to determine whether these would-be immigrants are fit enough to be called Americans.
Key moments in the film are marked with masterful images that surprise with their originality and linger in the memory. The departure of the steamship from the docks is a moment of total, awestruck silence in which an overhead shot reveals a mass of people literally being pulled apart. Instead of the requisite shot of the Statue of Liberty or the New York City skyline, Crialese chooses to enshroud the newly arrived ship and its uncertain passengers in a thick cloud of white fog. The dream vision of America that recurs throughout the film is the United States as a river of milk, a pristine white bath in which one must, however, struggle to stay afloat. But for all its surreal touches, the film is an enlightening, historically accurate look at what the ancestors of many Americans went through. At a time when another kind of immigration debate rages, it's also an important reminder of where many of us "Americans" came from. leave a comment --Ken Fox
Sicilian-born filmmaker Emanuele Crialese takes a huge leap forward from his pretty but simplistic RESPIRO with this highly original, startlingly beautiful and emotionally resonant film about a small, turn-of-the-century Sicilian family's journey into the great unknown: America.