Eden Is West

Eden Is West


Reviewed by: Adam Micklethwaite

A modern day reworking of the Odyssey in a very contemporary political context, Eden Is West tells the story of Elias (Ricardo Scamarcio), an illegal immigrant trying to make his way to the modern day Eden of Paris, the city of enlightenment, culture and tolerance. Uplifting, funny and, occasionally, heartrending, this is a film which treats its subject matter with immense respect, taking the audience on a journey in which they are both passenger and protagonist. This is a fable dealing in empathy, which seeks to put the viewer in the immigrant’s shoes, to see the world from his perspective and to appreciate the immense difficulties, dangers and challenges he must face in order to survive this brave new world.

At the film's centre is Elias - whose personality combines the naivety of Voltaire’s Candide, the innocent charm of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and the tenacity of Homer’s Ulysses. Scamarcio’s performance is an absolute tour de force. In order to win the audience to his cause, it is essential for the director that they can empathise with Elias and that they want him to succeed. There is no doubt in my mind that Scamarcio achieves such a bond and his performance should draw grudging respect even from those who disagree with the film’s message.

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What makes this performance all the more remarkable is the lack of dialogue which he has to work with. Despite being present for almost every scene, he has little more than a dozen lines of badly spoken French to convey the rollercoaster of emotions upon which the journey takes him, meaning that his performance owes a great deal to the legends of the silent era, who could convey every shade of comedy and tragedy without a single word. Moving from the ‘paradise’ of a private holiday resort in the south of France through to the ‘hell’ of a factory in the north, where immigrants are being exploited with the false promise of legal status, Elias’ journey sees him encounter a wide variety of characters who represent the spectrum of attitudes towards the immigrant.

Inevitably, we are presented with moments of cruelty, humiliation and indifference, but what makes the film so watchable are the moments of kindness and generosity shown towards Elias. When a couple offers to give him a ride, when a woman protects him from the security guards at the resort, and when another offers him a jacket which will provide him with the status symbol he needs to integrate, we see reflections of our society in which we can take pride. Nevertheless, this is not a straightforward fairytale and, as such, tragedy is never far away, even when happiness seems in sight. Never has the line (spoken in French), “No, Mr Baker, I have no fresh bread.” been equipped with such poignancy and emotional intensity as when Elias is briefly and tragically reunited with his fellow countryman.

This fable for our times manages to be touching, comedic, and poignant. It does not preach to us about our society’s bigoted and hypocritical attitudes towards migrants, but instead seeks to win us over to a cause by highlighting the genuine humanity and humility of the story’s hero, Elias. Rather than dealing with “immigration” in terms of broad generalisations, in the way so many sections of the media and politicians are guilty of, director Costa-Gavras personalises the issue by taking the case of a single person.

Eden is West is the journey of one man from an unknown country (the director takes great care to maintain this mystique by inventing a language for him) with an unknown past and an extremely unstable future. The film asks that we judge Elias as we find him, based on his actions in the here and now, rather than on preconceived notions about immigrants and immigration - an attitude borne out in the film’s intelligently ambiguous ending. Eden Is West is an example of European cinema at its best, tackling issues that mainstream Hollywood wouldn’t dream of, but doing so with a lightness of touch which should give even the most hardened skeptic pause for thought.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2009
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Eden Is West packshot
Odyssey of a migrant in search of 'paradise'.

Director: Costa-Gavras

Writer: Costa-Gavras, Jean-Claude Grumberg

Starring: Riccardo Scamarcio, Juliane Köhler, Ulrich Tukur, Eric Caravaca, Jean-Christophe Folly, Florian Martens, Antoine Monot Jr

Year: 2009

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: France, Greece, Italy

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