Michael Pattison checked in from Gateshead to report on Éden, a film on grief, guidance and confusion in suburban Rio de Janeiro.
At 74 minutes, Éden is a suitably slim work that invests more into atmospherics than it does narrative intricacy. The third feature by Brazilian writer-director Bruno Safadi, this evocative film enjoys favourable if unlikely comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson’s more widely seen effort, The Master, in its portrait of a recently traumatised soul whose vulnerability is nursed and/or exploited by an ambiguous religious leader.
Suburban Rio de Janeiro, the present. Upon her brother’s suggestion, Karine (Leandra Leal) attends a regular meeting at the Church of Éden, an evangelical group led by Pastor Naldo (João Miguel), in the hope of finding some peace in the aftermath of her husband Juninho’s murder. Enduring the final and painful stages of pregnancy, Karine is at first bewildered by Naldo’s impassioned speeches, on the perils of pop culture and gun crime, but becomes increasingly involved in the group’s outreach work, helping to promote the church and its values of understanding and forgiveness. Overseen by Naldo, Karine is encouraged to embrace such values by befriending Vânia (Cristina Lago), another heavily pregnant woman, whose boyfriend Ronaldo (João Pedro Zapper) is responsible for Karine’s husband’s death.
Opting for fragmentation and ellipses over a more direct mode of address, Safadi begins the film on his protagonist’s face and moves slowly outward. Revealing more and more as it drifts back, the camera movement cues the film’s narrative pattern as a whole: information is revealed in such a way here that the meaning of previous scenes is always open to retroactive clarification. Predictably, such an unoriginal but profitable storytelling method makes an otherwise unremarkable tale intriguing and often stirring to watch.
Here, style is key. In its opening scene, Éden demonstrates the moody airs with which its story will unfold, as Safadi and co. accumulate the intensifying aural texture of a thunderstorm, while an early flashback (or dream sequence), to Karine and Juninho (André Ramiro) making love in a forest idyll, has an artifice and expressionism reminiscent of Raya Martin’s Independencia (2009). As Karine’s physical and moral proximity to Naldo increases (or does it?), Safadi imbues menace with suggestive cutaways to the religious leader, who creeps into a doorway and stands ominously over our protagonist. Elsewhere, Karine struggles in some pain along a dreary corridor in a moment that is given a Lynchian charge by a rich crescendo of music and a progressively blurred visual frame.
Safadi’s employment of familiar arthouse tropes reaps occasional rewards, as in the delightful flashback to Karine and Juninho’s first encounter, in a neon-dreamy karaoke bar called Sinuca’s Flashback, which unfolds to Karine’s rendition of Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’. As the film’s narrative becomes more inward-folding, however, Safadi’s more self-conscious framing is distracting despite its retention of a certain symbolism, such as when Naldo confronts Vânia and Ronaldo within Karine’s earshot: Leal’s protagonist stands in the foreground, while the other three characters remain behind her, out-of-focus; Safadi’s decision to present the scene in one take draws attention to the aesthetic in an enervating manner. It doesn’t help that by this point the viewer might have guessed that, true to the overall approach, Karine’s catharsis is going to be denoted with a whimper rather than a wallop.
After Éden’s world premiere at the Rio International Film Festival last October, Leandra Leal won the Best Actress prize. Matching her director’s narrative style, Leal’s is a subtle performance that captures the emotional and perhaps even social vulnerability of a pregnant and grieving widow. Beginning and ending the film in a portable swimming pool — a visual motif that is echoed by the Church of Éden’s ongoing promise of new baptism pools — Leal injects a depth of feeling into Karine that was presumably difficult to interpret on paper.
Opposite Leal, though, as enigmatic church leader Naldo, João Miguel draws upon reserves of conflicting energies to embody a character that is at once insidious and naïve. Bearing a facial resemblance to Darren Aronofsky and recalling early De Niro in his bodily containment, Miguel makes the most of a character who courts caricature from the very moment he concludes an introductory scene with the reminder that audiences may buy DVDs of ‘Pastor Naldo Sings’ — something which might have given The Master’s Lancaster Dodd a run for his money.
Michael Pattison is the editor of idFilm.net. As a film critic and researcher, he never picks his feet in Poughkeepsie.