By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jul 20, 2007 at 5:12 AM

If you’ve seen his stark and beautiful “Respiro,” you know that Italian writer/director Emanuele Crialese’s look at emigration is bound to be unique. His new film, “Golden Door” (Called “Nuovomondo” or “New World” in Italy) strikes an unusual chord.

(Warning: potential spoiler at the bottom.)

Unlike other movies about immigrants arriving in New York, Crialese doesn’t attempt to explore what becomes of the immigrant, looking only at the emotional and mental journey to become an emigrant and the physical journey that follows.

Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) is a poor farmer in a particularly brutal – yet beautiful – Sicilian landscape, where the terrain is rocky and the soil darn near worthless for conjuring a living for himself, his mother, his brother and his son.

Although he turns out to be an astute fellow, we worry a little about Salvatore at first, because he is eager to believe the lies contained in pictures of America that show money growing on trees.

After a long climb up a rocky slope to consult with God, Salvatore decides to sell his few possessions and take his family to America. Joining him on his journey are two young women promised as brides to emigrants already in New York.

For almost any American, the scenes of departure and the accompanying despair, heartbreak, hopefulness and confusion ought to strike a chord. Most of us are here because at least one of our ancestors experienced them first-hand.

No less moving and eye opening are the scenes on the ship, as our grandparents and great-grandparents are tossed here and there by the rolling sea, tucked into tight third-class steerage quarters.

Co-starring is Charlotte Gainsbourg as Lucy Reed, an Englishwoman who is mysteriously traveling in steerage with the Italians, causing no shortage of gossip among her fellow travelers and arousing the curiosity of border agents when the ship docks in New York.

A good portion of the film details a potential immigrant’s experience on Ellis Island, which to Americans is an island of dreams but for Italian emigrant was known as the island of tears. It’s easy to understand both.

The flickering romance that twinkles in the eyes of Salvatore and Lucy allows us to concoct all manner of stories about what becomes of them, but deliciously, and wisely, Crialese allows us to decide.

The camera work is vivid, on the spot and the look of the film artfully gritty and mysteriously, much like the emigrant’s own journey. That “Golden Door” opens in Milwaukee while Festa Italiana is underway is appropriate, but you don’t need to be an Italian or Italian-American to appreciate the humanity of a story of American immigration.