Éden: Rio Film Festival Review

Religious faith meets mental breakdown in award-winning passion play

Stylish psychological thriller about an emotionally distressed, heavily pregnant young woman in contemporary Brazil.

Set in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, this award-winning contemporary drama from the young Brazilian writer-director Bruno Safadi is a slight but beautifully crafted parable of sex, violence and religious hypocrisy. Picking up the Best Actress prize at the Rio Film Festival last week, Leandra Leal stars as a 30-year-old pregnant woman so dazed and confused by grief that she allows herself to be manipulated by a charismatic evangelical preacher.

Éden unfolds in a fragmentary, non-linear manner, punctuated with lovely visual flourishes. Powered by a somber and discordant orchestral score, it never quite delivers the sinister dramatic payoff it initially seems to promise. But it boasts sufficiently strong performances and art-house credentials to stir modest theatrical interest in foreign markets, particularly among fans of Latin American cinema who crave something deeper than exotic tourist clichés about guns, ghettos and sunshine.

Heavily pregnant and inconsolable following the mindless murder of her partner, Karine (Leal) turns for comfort to the Church of Éden, a fringe religious cult led by the forceful young Pastor Naldo (João Miguel). Delivering his high-octane sermons beneath a giant poster of his own face, Naldo is plainly a dubious character, especially when he recruits a reluctant Karine as an “ambassador” for his key message about family values, forgiveness and turning the other cheek. But Safadi does not go down the familiar big-screen path of satirising religious charlatans, allowing Naldo a few redeeming features and ambivalent shadings. He may be a self-serving narcissist, but he is no David Koresh.

Right from its opening shot, Éden displays a strong command of visual poetry. We first see Karine hiding away inside an upright swimming pool, its plastic covers undulating in the breeze. Her tormented emotional state is later explained in a superbly staged, slow-motion flashback to the violent home invasion which left her baby’s father dead. Another stand-out sequence revisits the lovers at their first meeting, a rapturously erotic interlude in a neon-lit karaoke bar, followed by frolics in a hot tub set to the incongruous 1980s Britpop sounds of Spandau Ballet’s True. Resonant and atmospheric, each of these dreamlike montages expresses a huge amount without a single line of dialogue.

Safadi and his cinematographer Lula Carvalho are virtuoso visual stylists, sometimes to the point of overwhelming their insubstantial story. At 73 minutes, Éden feels light on plot, especially its inconclusive third act. During Karine’s agonized pregnancy, the film evokes the creeping menace of Roman Polanski’s classic paranoid thriller Rosemary’s Baby, but ultimately settles for being a close-up character study rather than a deeper exploration of social or religious themes. Even so, this is a highly absorbing drama, marking both Safadi and Leal as names to watch outside their native Brazil.

Venue: Rio Film Festival screening, October 3

Production Company: TB Producoes, Greengo Films

Producer: Jan Roldanus

Cast: Leandra Leal, João Miguel, Julio Andrade, André Ramiro, Cristina Lago

Director: Bruno Safadi

Writer: Antonia Pellegrino, Bruno Safadi

Cinematography: Lula Carvalho

Editor: Rodrigo Lima

Music: Guilherme Vaz

Sales company: TB Producoes, Greengo Films

Rating TBC, 73 minutes