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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 handsome young immigrant from an unnamed country. Directing the France-Italy-Greece co- production, veteran Costa-Gavras avoids a strictly realistic treatment in favor of a symbolic approach, with mixed results. The filmmaking is fluid and the imagery strong, offering "Eden" a chance with audiences where more impassioned but less polished pictures have failed.

A French-nationalized Greek, Costa-Gavras always has been strong on social commitment, directing such memorable films as "Z" (two Oscar nominations), "Missing" (screenplay Oscar and Cannes Palme d'Or) and "Music Box" (Berlin Golden Bear). So it's not surprising he would explore Europe's gigantic sociopolitical problem, though the immigrant genre is so overworked in European cinema that it probably should be banned for the next five years.

Searching for a fresh vantage point, Costa-Gavras and co-scripter Jean-Claude Grumberg mythologize their hero, turning him into a cross between a noble, wandering Ulysses and a Charlie Chaplin perpetually on the run from the cops — though, truth to tell, teen idol Scamarcio bears an eerie resemblance to a big-eyed, moptop Jackie Coogan.

The story begins at dawn over a stunning Aegean Sea, introducing a mythic note that underlies the entire film. As in Gianni Amelio's "Lamerica" or the third-class steerage of "Titanic," the vessel bearing 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 wanders mutely, fighting off the hotel manager's sexual attentions, until a lonely lady from Hamburg (Juliane Kohler) takes him into her bed. Although it sounds like farce, this is played straight to show the decadent West assaulting the shocked innocent.

With police hot on his heels, Elias leaves the 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 the poor generally lend Elias a helping hand, while the middle class literally shoves him down toilets and treats him like a sex toy.

Scamarcio is endearing in a derivative role, probably his best to date, but a little Chaplin-esque comedy and a little less Ulysses-like angst would have gone a long way toward lightening up the film's final hour. (partialdiff)
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