A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Emanuele Crialese, 2006, Italy/France, 120mins, Italian with subtitles
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vincenzo Amato, Aurora Quattrocchi, Francesco Casisa, Filippo Pucillo
Set in the turn of the century, this is a sobering, unsentimental account of an Italian family’s migration to America. The hill-dwelling Mancuso family eke out a meagre living, mostly through grandmother Fortunata’s (Quattrocchi) ability to commune with spirits. The mesmerizing opening sequence crosscuts between Fortunata’s, rather dubious, healing of a “possessed” girl, and her son Vincenzo (Amato) climbing a rocky mountain to consult God. Should he live out his days in the mountains, or go elsewhere? Vincenzo’s mute son Pietro brings the answer: photographs from America that show giant vegetables and gold coins growing on trees. Vincenzo and his reluctant clan join the poor, huddled masses for the perilous journey to the Promised Land.
The immigrant story is a potent part of American mythology, recounted to every schoolchild. Respiro (2002) director Crialese examines their experience from a European perspective and in minute detail: a harrowing, steamship voyage stalked by death, disease and poor living conditions. Upon arrival, patronising government officials subject them to demeaning tests in a bid to keep the “sub-normal” out of the country. “How modern”, is the enigmatic Lucie’s (Gainsbourg) wry observation. An Italian speaking Englishwoman fallen on hard times, she inveigles her way into the Mancuso family where, despite Fortunata’s suspicions, Vincenzo becomes smitten. Crialese’s screenplay renders Lucie somewhat ill defined. Rumours circulate, but we never find out what led her to Italy and her present circumstances. Nevertheless Gainsbourg is always a compelling actress in any language.
Amato and Quattrocchi bring quiet dignity to their roles, but Crialese often sacrifices character insight in favour of obtuse surrealism: Salvatore’s dream about coins falling from the sky, immigrants wading through an ocean of milk (a strained metaphor for the journey to the land of milk and honey?), and a soundtrack that features two, anachronistic songs by Nina Simone. Why Pietro refuses to speak remains a mystery and a sub-plot about the search for Salvatore’s twin brother is quickly dropped. Familiar character actor Vincent Schiavelli turns up as shady businessman who arranges marriages of convenience. Originally a major character, it became a supporting role because Schiavelli sadly passed away during filming. A great shame, because it was a rare chance for him to shine away from Hollywood typecasting.
Crialese’s inventive direction masks his budget (we glimpse only parts of the ship, and never see the Statue of Liberty) and cleverly keeps things centred on the immigrants. As the ship lurches through the storm, we see only a mass of tangled bodies amidst fearful cries. Later, after so much suffering, Quattrocchi and Gainsbourg convey the simple joys of a warm shower. A courtroom scene where young girls confront their older fiancées with heartbreaking disappointment is another marvellous bit of observation. These moments linger in the memory, in spite of an abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion.