Italy pins Oscar hopes on Crialese

Tue, 10/03/2006 - 06:02

An epic tale about Italian emigration at the start of the 20th century was chosen as Italy's entry for the best foreign film Oscar on Monday.

Nuovomondo (The Golden Door), written and directed by acclaimed young director Emanuele Crialese, will compete to be on the final five-strong shortlist to be unveiled on January 23.

The film focuses on a Sicilian family who make the journey from their homeland to America in search of a better life.

It recounts the family's voyage and their eventual arrival at the Golden Door, namely the immigrant processing centre on New York's Ellis Island.

The visually stunning movie, which cost $11 million to make, couples French star Charlotte Gainsbourg with little-known Sicilian actor Vincenzo Amato.

Crialese, 41, penned the story after several visits to the centre - now a museum - on Ellis Island, which admitted 17 million immigrants to America from the time it opened in 1892 until its closure in 1954 .

By 1900, Ellis Island was admitting up to 5,000 people a day and more than 40% of the US population is descended from those who passed through the centre.

The immigrants were detained for up to a day on the island, where they faced an often-humiliating inspection process, which included physical and psychological examinations, as well as literacy tests and questions about their political views.

The gruelling admission procedures are detailed in The Golden Door. Crialese revealed recently that an archivist at the museum had given him access to rare documents which he had found "astonishing" because they revealed the sort of psychological screening tests that at one point the immigrants were subjected to.

"The women were shown a female body cut up into 18 pieces. Their first instinctive reaction was 'I didn't do it'. The men instead were shown a tennis court without a net and they had to say what was missing. Many of them obviously didn't even know what tennis was," Crialese said.

"I discovered that this was where the basics of Lombroso's eugenics came from," said the director, referring to the famous 19th-century Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, who proposed the theory of a criminal type .

He said that Italian and Irish immigrants, who made up the bulk of the would-be immigrants, showed themselves to be more adaptable than others .

"They were capable of doing any type of work. They were the only ones, apart from blacks, who worked on the cotton plantations," he said. Crialese stressed that he was not criticising America for its immigration policies .

"I merely wanted to portray the immigrant dream, without entering into any polemics and without passing judgement," he said.

The Golden Door, Crialese's third feature, competed in last month's Venice Film Festival where it picked up the Silver Lion for Revelation, an optional jury award which is rarely given out.

Crialese's previous film Respiro was a surprise hit. Passing practically unobserved in Italy when it was released in 2002, it went on to win a string of prestigious festival awards and international critical acclaim.

Set in a fishing village on the southern Sicilian island of Lampedusa, the film stars Valeria Golino (of Rain Man fame) as a free-spirited mother who is branded crazy by the closed local community because of her unconventional ways. The Rome-born Crialese studied film at New York University. His first film, the 1998 comedy Once We Were Strangers, was made in the States.

Italy last won the Oscar's best foreign language film category in 1999, with Roberto Benigni's Holocaust movie Life Is Beautiful.

Benigni also bagged Oscars for best actor and best music.