But it’s our turn to feel displaced first as the film opens in Sicily and peasants Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) and his young son Angelo Mancuso (Francesco Casisa) climb a barren, cloud-hugged hill, each with a stone clasped between his jaws, to consult a weather-beaten crucifix as to whether they should venture to the New World or not. It’s a mysterious scene, steeped in both historical and cultural distance, that’s graced with a striking, overhead approach to photography to which cinematographer Agnès Godard returns several times, not least for a fantastic shot of the ship leaving the dock in Sicily in an echo of the wider separation to come. By then, Salvatore and Angelo, along with Salvatore’s stubborn mother, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi) and his mute other son, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), have been persuaded to cross the Atlantic by the allure of trick photos of giant chickens and trees that grow money. On board, an attraction strikes up between Salvatore and Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a lone English-woman, whose reasons for joining the throng remain unclear.Crialese indulges the rituals and privations of migration, blending telling human detail with more impressionistic moments: Pietro bids farewell to a cow; the groan of the ship haunts the journey; and Salvatore dreams one night of floating in milk with Lucy and hanging on to a floating giant carrot, so conflating in a poetic vision two myths relating to life in the New World – that there are lakes of milk and that vegetables are big beyond belief.
The final scenes in Ellis Island – involving tests of intelligence and marriages of convenience – are superbly choreographed, and Crialese shows a deft ability to flit between the ensemble and the personal. The experience of the Mancuso family remains central, but the director never loses sight of the experience of an entire generation of his compatriots. His film stands as smart testimony to their journeys.