Eden: Rotterdam Review

International Film Festival Rotterdam
Fictionalized memoir of an unusual one-parent childhood is a little closer to purgatory than paradise.

Indie-folk giant Will Oldham stars in Elise DuRant's autobiographical drama, a USA/Mexico co-production set south of the border.

The perils of a filmmaker drawing too directly on their own life-histories are again illustrated in Eden, writer-director Elise DuRant's lightly fictionalized version of her unorthodox childhood in 1980s Mexico. And while alternative-music maestro Will Oldham turns in a warm, nuanced performance as a man evidently modeled on DuRant's own father, there's little else to make this undercooked affair stand out from the indie pack. One particular subplot may attract programmers of LGBT festivals, but otherwise this is essentially of chief interest to Oldham completists--he wrote and performs the song that plays over the closing credits, 'Song for John and Alma.'

An occasional, understatedly offbeat actor whose made his debut as a teenager in John Sayles' Matewan (1987), the revered recording-artist also known as "Bonnie 'Prince' Billy" here essays only his second leading role since Kelly Reichardt's 2008
Old Joy. John is a novelist--author of a "sci-fi religious thriller"--who lives in a dusty corner of Mexico, presumably not far from the US border. He's an attentive parent to 9-year-old Alma (Paula Maria Landa Hartasanchez), who observes the mysterious world of adults with silent fascination. Gradually we piece together facets of John's life--he has a profitable sideline in artifact-smuggling--with particular emphasis on his complex relationship with a partner-in-crime who also becomes a partner between the sheets. We're guided in our detective-work by the peregrinations of the present-day Alma (Diana Sedano) some 25 years later, returning to her childhood haunts after undergoing an abortion.

DuRant's background is in editing--she's worked on five Woody Allen films--and her collaborator Yibran Asuad Mujica cuts fluently between the twin timeframes, at first so imperceptibly it seems, as in Jacques Demy's classic Lola, that past and present perhaps magically somehow co-exist. Vicente Pouso's widescreen digital cinematography likewise catches the attention, favoring centered but non symmetrical compositions that at their best function as subtle domestic tableaux. But this quietly impressive craft is at the service of a screenplay that never really comes into proper focus or finds a proper narrative rhythm--there's the sense that DuRant hasn't found the distance from the material that would enable her give it proper shape, even if the John-Alma two-handers have genuine warmth and charm.

There's barely a mention of Alma's mother--she's glimpsed in a photograph at one point--but the film's avoidance of exploring this potentially fruitful dramatic avenue smacks more of evasiveness than constructive ellipsis. Sedano's adult Alma, meanwhile, makes for a wan, uninvolving, passive protagonist, and the generally torpid present-day sequences --where she's ever-present--chiefly serve to impede the effect of the slightly livelier flashback segments. In this particular Eden (one of at least nine features to use the title in the current decade alone) ponderous protractions are the norm--as the kid says at one point during a drive through the countryside, "Daddy, I'm bored--why do you always take the long road?"

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Bright Future), January, 25 2014
Production company: Jose Leandro Cordova Lucas, Atlantis 8
Cast: Will Oldham, Paula Maria Landa Hartasanchez, Diana Sedano
Director / Screenwriter: Elise DuRant
Producer: Jose Leandro Cordova Lucas
Director of photography: Vicente Pouso
Production designer: Nohemi Gonzalez Martinez
Editor: Yibran Asuad Mujica
Sales: Atlantis 8 Films, New York
No MPAA rating, 95 minutes

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