Director: Emanuele Crialese
By Roderick Heath
In a primal setting, a primal rite: Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) and his elder son Angelo (Francesco Casisa) struggle up a rocky mountainside bare-footed, with stones clenched between their teeth. They fight their way up to a crucifix mounted on a hilltop. They spit out the saliva- and blood-smeared stones and beg for divine guidance—should they remain in their exhausted, inhospitable land, or flee?
Simultaneously, two young women, Rita (Federica De Cola) and Rosa (Isabella Ragonese), are pursued by Salvatore’s other son, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), who everyone assumes to be a deaf-mute because he never speaks. He tries to delight or repel them, or both, by decorating his hair with snails. But they’re too fretful to be long distracted. As they’re soon confessing to their terse, old mystic of a grandmother, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), Rita is tormented by a feeling like she has “a snake in her stomach” and has so ever since they were approached by local merchant Don Ercole (Filippo Luna) to be mail-order brides for established men in America. He sent them a set of novelty photos showing money growing on trees and gigantic chickens—the squirming of the snake in Rita’s belly is restless discontent and anxiety. Fortunata performs a piece of folk magic, affecting to tug the offensive animal out of her stomach. But Fortuanta’s attempts to tame the beast of discontent are failing, as Pietro races to presents the amazing photographs, which she ordered him to burn, to his father and brother as they pray on the hilltop, providing exactly the sign they were seeking.
Salvatore sells their animals to finance emigration. Don Ercole sells them clothes belonging to a dead man—a baron, no less—and tells them not to bother putting on their shoes until they get to a city. Salvatore, given to occasional, surreal fantasies, imagines a field where gigantic carrots and other vegetables are being dug out of the ground, energizing him to take the two girls and his grandmother as well. Fortunata dissents, not wanting to leave the spirits of their relatives. In protest, Salvatore digs a hole in the ground and almost completely buries himself, demanding to know what’s so damned great about this arid, poverty-stricken, backward place they live in. He lies covered in dirt all night, dreaming of silver coins raining from the sky. In the morning, Fortunata resurrects him, emerging from the hut to tug his hand from the earth, and soon the whole rag-tag clan is making their way towards a seaport.
Nuovomondo is a film with a feel and respect for mystery: third-time feature director Crialese’s conception drags us from the edge of history through to the dawn of the very modern era. Fortunata, Salvatore, and their family live in a peasant world with a preternatural instinct for magic and mysticism; eventually they will be confronted by a different, no less awesome magic in the skyscrapers of Manhattan. But they also refuse to leave behind their own magic, a refusal that will present difficulties in breaching the “golden door” of its English-language title. Nuovomondo, like its characters, straddles Old World and New, its style blending the sparse, hushed intensity of European masters with a distinct impetus, a refusal to retreat into hopeless circularity or narrative impasse, as befits a film about determination and hope. The final passages are toned by the effervescence and attitude of Nina Simone. The inscrutable poise of the opening segues into a linking series of enigmas through the narrative: cinematographer Agnes Godard’s camera, Crialese’s direction of it, and his script maintain a strict measure of control over what the viewer is absorbing. The Mancusos are innocent, but they’re also tough and shrewd and refuse to act like victims, even if it hurts. Characters and incidents enter the frame unannounced and threaten to leave again, a tactic which emphasizes the nature of dislocation and the intense nervousness, the perceived lack of control, a note of threat and anxiety that contradicts any clichés of reflexive nostalgia and propaganda.
When the Mancusos and their charges reach their city of embarkation, it’s a bustling, filthy dive full of cheats and criminals, as well as decent and helpful folk. One man tries to force them to buy useless medicine; others warn them about the scam and of the troubles they can expect at Ellis Island. When they’re being processed at the outgoing emigration post, a new character enters the tale. First casually observed leaning against a pillar and then creeping into the corners of the frame is the comely, red-headed form of Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an inexplicably stranded Englishwoman without any apparent friends or support. She attaches herself to the Mancusos, only to be caught out as they move to get on the boat, pretending to speak no Italian for a pushy, sleazy official. She’s as intent, and desperate, on getting to America as any of the peasants around her, and she’s told in no uncertain terms that to get through customs she needs to be attached to a man.
Lucy proves a tantalizing and potentially valuable passenger on the migrant ship. Don Luigi (Vincent Schiavelli, in his last role), a marriage broker of a higher class than Don Ercole, promises her a convenient union in New York. Lucy is the object of endless, mostly derogatory, speculation by others passengers, but she keeps tight-lipped, forming tenuous friendships with Rita and Rosa, stirring the prickly Fortunata’s wrath when she objects to the matriarch’s constant negative mumbling, and being a convenient lust-object for Pietro and Angelo, the latter sneaking about the cabin at night, breathing in the odor welling off her. For Salvatore, she’s something more—a perfect fantasy partner for a new fantasy world where he imagines floating with her in a river of milk that rumor has it flows in California. Salvatore shaves off his moustache and looks 20 years younger. Rather than accept one of Luigi’s sheikhs, Lucy will ask Salvatore to marry her at Ellis Island to help her get through. He agrees with all the courtly civility of a cavalier, for though both deny any chance of love in their union, Salvatore cuts away a lock of her hair, “so that we won’t lose each other.” “I don’t believe in magic,” Lucy replies. “With time, I’ll teach you about it,” he promises.
Describing the story of Nuovomondo inevitably falls short for a film that is as successful a piece of magic-realism as recent cinema has produced, and has traits much like its characters, alive to fleeting textures and cagey about declarations. There is an extraordinary texture to almost offhand sequences, like when Fortunata “exorcises” Rita, tugging what looks awfully like a joke-shop serpent from inside her; when the passengers on the ship are flung about by a storm like laundry in a washing machine; when they stumble out battered upon deck the next day, a young woman lurching blearily with her dead baby, dropping it overboard before collapsing like a dishrag; when Lucy walks the deck, exchanging quizzical, teasing glances with Salvatore who reverently stalks her, her red hair shimmering in the sun and time slowed every so slightly; Salvatore’s humorous fantasy visions; the immigrants frantically brushing out their hair and trying to assemble a veneer of cleanliness for their arrival; a furiously exuberantly ceilidh; and a fog-laden arrival in New York Harbor with all but the highest panes in the immigrant station frosted, forcing the men to climb up them to get a first view of the city.
The gilded cliché of the “immigrant experience” has of course been portrayed before, exploited by the varying agendas of films like The Godfather Part II (giving cred to gangsters) and Titanic (providing picturesque drinking buddies). Nuovomondo strikes far harder and echoes far deeper not least for being intricately modest. It evokes, in spirit if not execution, Charlie Chaplin’s infamous boot in the pants to the immigration official in The Immigrant (1917) in its ground-level humanism. There’s a total rejection of the grandiose in its sensibility, even the ambling epicism of Tarkovsky and Angelopolous, whose influence can be detected in the style, along with dashes of Fellini’s quirk: the context is instead utterly personal, with an close-quarters feel for moral and physical consequence. The film doesn’t romanticize what the Mancusos are leaving, whilst acknowledging it will always dominate their psyches; nor will what they find fulfill their dreams, even though it can hardly be worse.
Ellis Island, once reached, is an Escher-sketch tangle of halls, departments, degradations, and bureaucratic hoops, moments of stripping and being paraded and prodded. Candidates are expected to arrange blocks of wood into shapes as a test of intelligence despite the fact few of them have any concept of abstract puzzle—Salvatore immediately arranges them into a model of his farm. Fortunata, bewildered by a new world that values geometry, not magic, asks the officials if they are God to decided who enters the new world. Crialese’s layered direction recognizes that small gestures can lay the world waste and open up vast futures: the most crucial moment in the film, and also the most showy, is when Crialese halts every motion in the frame, with Lucy and Fortunata only moving slightly, absorbing the import of Fortunata’s slight nod to Lucy—her acceptance of her as a member of her family.
The film builds to an excruciatingly tense climax in which the women of the party are arrayed, in their forlorn attempts to look like brides with veils and good dresses, to be sold off to their matches, and Lucy sits stoically, but with increasing anxiety waiting for Salvatore to get through his processing, with Luigi and his prospective beaus waiting to snatch her up when she gets desperate enough. There’s already been the spectacle of Rita submissively and glumly acknowledging her pudgy, middle-aged beau, and Rosa berating hers for not matching his description of himself, but likewise submits. Meanwhile, Fortunata and Pietro are threatened with deportation, leading Fortunata to demand Pietro do what he least wants to.
Crialese is aided by a superlatively understated cast and Godard’s astounding camerawork. It’s specifically by resisting the tendency to spell things out in blazing neon letters, its firm control on what it wants to reveal and say and not trying to tug tears, that gives Nuovomondo the impact it finally possesses. It builds to a final moment that ranks with that of Terence Malick’s own vision of The New World (2005) and Emir Kusturica’s cap of Underground (1995) among the most transcendent moments in recent cinema. l