March 7, 2009 / 2:28 AM / 10 years ago

Costa-Gavras lends touch of magic to immigrant tale

BERLIN (Hollywood Reporter) - An illegal immigrant comes to Europe to find a better life in “Eden Is West,” a familiar story distinguished by its healthy $9 million budget and the Italian star power of Riccardo Scamarcio as a noble, handsome young immigrant from an unnamed country. Directing the French-Italian-Greek co-production, veteran Costa-Gavros avoids a strictly realistic treatment in favor of a more symbolic approach, with mixed results.

The filmmaking is fluid and the imagery is strong, offering “Eden” — which premiered as a noncompeting selection of the recent Berlin International Film Festival — a chance with audiences where more impassioned but less polished pictures have failed.

A French-nationalized Greek, Costa-Gavras has always been strong on social commitment, directing memorable films like “Z” (winner of the foreign-language Oscar), “Missing” (Cannes Palme d’Or) and “Music Box” (Berlin Golden Bear). So it’s not surprising he would choose to explore Europe’s current gigantic sociopolitical problem, though at this point the immigrant genre is so overworked in European cinema it should probably be banned for the next five years.

Searching for a fresh vantage point, Costa-Gavros and co-scripter Jean-Claude Grumberg opt to mythologize their hero, turning him into a cross between the noble, wandering Ulysses and a Charlie Chaplin perpetually on the run from the cops — though truth to tell, teen idol Scamarcio (“My Brother Is an Only Child”) bears an eerie resemblance to big-eyed mop-top Jackie Coogan.

The story begins at dawn over a stunning Aegean sea, introducing a mythic note that will underlie the entire film. Like Gianni Amelio’s “L’America” or the 3rd-class steerage of “Titanic,” the vessel that bears him to an unnamed European shore is packed with desperate but hopeful faces. When the Coast Guard confiscates the tub, Elias (Scamarcio) is one of the brave lads who jumps into the dark waters and swims ashore.

He awakens on the beach of a nudist colony, part of the luxurious Hotel Eden. Mistaken for a hotel employee, he mutely wanders around, fighting off the sexual attentions of the hotel manager, until a lonely lady from Hamburg (Juliane Kohler) takes him into her bed. Though it sounds like farce, this is all played straight to show the decadent West assaulting the shocked innocent.

With the police hot on his heels, the good Elias leaves this artificial Western paradise and strikes out for a mythical Paris, where with his smattering of French, he hopes to find the Wizard of Oz — in this case, a stage magician who has befriended him. On the road to Paris/paradise, he passes through gypsy camps and the inferno of a toxic factory exploiting workers without papers. Simplifying to the max, the film shows how poor people generally lend Elias a helping hand, while the middle class literally shove him down toilets and treat him like a sex toy.

Scamarcio is endearing enough in a derivative role, probably his best to date, but a little Chaplinesque comedy and a little less Ulysses-like angst would have gone a long way toward lightening up the film’s last hour.

Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters

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