A memorable scene of 1917 Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedy short The Immigrant denounces the brutal mistreatment of newly arrived immigrants – many of which were Italian nationals – in New York by local public officials. Unsurprisingly, the sharp antithesis between the temporarily captive status of migrants and the caption ‘The arrival in the country of freedom’ did not please the state film censorship, which accused the comic actor of outrageously disseminating anti-Americanist sentiments. More than 80 years later, in 1998, The Immigrant was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant’.
Numerically speaking Italians count as one the most significant migrant communities of the twentieth century; nevertheless, the artistic portrayal of such mass phenomenon within the national borders has blossomed only recently. With the beginning of the new millennium, a fascination with past Italian migration captivated filmmakers, journalists and novelists. In Emmanuele Crialese’s 2006 drama film Nuovomondo (New World), the arrival of a poverty-stricken Sicilian family at Ellis Island on a foggy winter morning impeding the view of the Statue of Liberty is a subtle, photographically exquisite reference to Chaplin’s groundbreaking production. The parallelism between the two works is self-evident in the sequences following the disembarkation, in which the camera focuses upon the humiliating physical and psychological examinations undergone by migrants. Continue reading