Eden is west
Costa-Gavras :: France, Greece :: 2008 :: 1h50
Elias, played by the Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio, leaves his country in a search for a better life. Full of hope, he finds himself on a large container ship filled with others fleeing wars or famine on the same voyage across the Mediterranean. The container ship is covered with huge sails to keep out prying eyes of over-flying security forces, heading for the fortress of Europe. Inside the hull, a timeless sun shines through on their faces, the open blue sea all around them. They are on the voyage of their lifetime, one which takes place today, but echos a Greek myth. Elias is heading for Paris, with an old language manual which he has been studying for a year in his back pocket.
Washed ashore on a Greek beach, he is awoken by a beach ball bouncing off him. A little further on, behind the rocks, he sees a group of naked tourists splashing in the water. He throws them the ball. Now what? He does the only thing he can to get out of there: he takes off his clothes. The absurdity of being in hiding, completed exposed! The question of how he will pull it off is running through both Elias’ and, very soon, our minds. It is the beginning of our voyage through his eyes, feeling the fear of being caught out at every step. The director Costa-Gavras puts us into an extreme version of Europe, one reminiscent of Le Couperet, where the wealthy rule and the others are oppressed or left to their devices. The holiday camp were he arrives is the perfect metaphor for the Europe we will see: it is a beautiful garden of Eden, a perfect world of plenty with luscious plants, food, drink and company. It is inhabited by the multilingual lucky few and surrounded by hidden walls guarded by men with dogs.
One of the curious moments in the film, is when he is offered an opportunity, a real opportunity for a simple but happy life, a little corner of paradise. But he does not take it. He follows his dream to the magical city. But why? Because he knows that even with hard work he will never make much of himself there? If you get going, do you want the prize to match the risk?
As Elias journeys through the continent to get to the City of Light, he passes through the immigrant work camps around a recycle plant, he meets Gypsies and the homeless. He meets kind people and those which just want to abuse him. Although Elias is a very strong character, it is difficult to obtain approval or respect from others in the miserable state of being an illegal alien, the weight of the stares of the others reduce him to the unwanted outsider. Throughout the relay of characters we are introduced to, some pop up again, others never do. We are taken along for the ride with Elias, we know no more or less than he does. It would be a shame to lift out all the different characters, as that is one of the great charms of this mythical road movie. It should also be mentioned that some beautiful images are bestowed on us: one of my favorites, is when he is walking in the country side as a traveller might do in the middle-ages, and steps over some rail lines – a TGV shoots by at over 300km/h in a near miss. Shocked he quickly jumps over the other rails, and another one shoots by in the opposite direction! Elias is never really a part of modernity, rather he just wonders through it. He is not really a part of anything, but time and time again, he could be.
But the modernity we see – that great European prison run like a police state – how true is that? And is it fair to talk about Europe as a rich people’s playground at the expense of the rest? A playground which needs to be protected from external bodies, such as Elias? As in Le Couperet, the film suggests that wealth is not created by people (through the creation of added value) but rather it is something which exists, which is controlled and distributed by an elite. If that was so, it would be ‘necessary’ to keep intruders out, or at least down, to keep the status quo. Culturally, France has longtime had this idea haunting them. Stretching out the idea into a possible social future could bring about such a world as the one portrayed here. The catch is, this idea which lingers is a mythical one, which is not really true. The history of Europe, or France, is a history of migration, for economic or political reasons. Times of affluence attract more people creating powerful countries. Increasing wealth is not attained only through cost reduction, as is suggested in the film, but innovation, vision, risk, luck and hard work produce it too. Immigration brings in intellectuals and an entrepreneurial spirit. The vision of Europe given here is dystopian, from a human perspective, and a reminder for us to question our vision on our political and economic future to choose the one which corresponds to our expectations of progress and values of human dignity.
I loved following Elias’ one man voyage into the unknown and highly recommend it. Take the social absurdism out with you into the café afterwards for a good analysis. As you see a world which is so close to your own, yet different, it is one of those films where you walk out seeing a different world around you. A world in which every other person could be a threat or a blessing to you. Don’t miss out.