CLOSE TO EDEN (France-Russia, 1992) ***1/2
You want a movie that's both different and delightful? Russian (and international) actor-director Nikita Mikhalkov started this one with a vague, exotic idea, kept improvising, and eventually came up with this most appealing film, one that does not fit any classification. It is a kind of freewheeling, documentary-ish fiction on cultures that clash or complement each other, on true family values, on vanishing lifestyles, the whole made with much wit and an eye for the bizarre.
Set in Inner Mongolia (a part of China), the movie first shows the daily, traditional routines of a family of Mongolian nomads who herd horses and sheep: Gombo, wife Pagma, three children and Grandma. The steppes are extraordinarily beautiful. You may think you're watching the past, until you start spotting modern artifacts: rubber wheels on a cart, a suitcase, an accordion, a portable stereo, a Swiss Army knife. The time is late Gorbachev.
The family works hard and is happy, but not in a sentimentalized way. Papa talks to the little boy about Genghis Khan and the Mongols (oral history) and explains a dragonfly (natural history).
The true title of the film is "Urga, " a long pole with a lasso at the end, for catching quadrupeds. When stuck on the ground, the urga becomes a "Do Not Disturb" sign signifying love-making in progress.
The title "Close to Eden" is tendentious. It prods the audience into thinking in nostalgic terms of Paradise Lost -- which is only partly true.
As a minority in China, the couple is allowed a maximum of three children --which is two more than for the Chinese majority. Pagma, who used to be a city girl and is more sophisticated than Gombo, asks him to buy condoms (and a television set) on his next trip to town.
Sergei, a foreign worker from Russia, forced by joblessness at home to work abroad on road building, is a burly, loquacious, volatile extrovert. Driving his truck in a state of stupor from sleeplessness, he gets it stuck and is rescued by Gombo, who takes him to the yurt.
The noisy Russian and the quiet Mongols make friends, communicate as well as they can. Curiously, the audience knows exactly what is being said, thanks to the subtitles.
Family and guest share dinner. (The skinning alive of a sheep, in graphic detail, calls for closing your eyes, especially if you are a vegetarian. Otherwise the movie contains no shocks). The next day Sergei drives Gombo and two horses to town.
It's another world, whose contrasts are presented naturally. At a fancy disco, the locals swing, Gombo watches, and gregarious Sergei gets good and drunk and homesick. He has the band play a melancholy Russian waltz from the music tattooed on his back. This is but one of the many humorous aspects of the film.
Sergei is carted away by cops in a Jeepster. Gombo, assisted by a friend who plays piano bar in a ritzy hotel, liberates Sergei. He then gets cold feet at the pharmacy and does not buy the condoms, but he does purchase a TV set.
On his way home he enters a lamasery to consult a priest about his birth-control dilemma. The voice of a chanting, unseen lama is heard: " You have problems, so do I. Let us pray together" -- a droll utterance worthy of the book of Quotes from the Silver Screen.
Cut to Gombo, in the steppe, having a vision of Genghis Khan reproaching him for his modern ways. On Genghis's cry "Kill that thing!" his micro-horde attacks the TV set.
Back at home, as Grandma systematically (and hilariously) pops the plastic bubbles that packed the set, the television programs turn out to be irrelevant to the family. The antenna symbolically looks like the "urga." Will that new lasso replace the old one or can they co-exist? The answer is in the film's delicious multiple closure.
All this plot-telling does not hurt, and there is much more to it in the details.
On the descriptive level , the movie reminds me not so much of modern documentaries but of the old, ground-breaking, affectionate ones, like Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North" (1922) or "Grass" (1925) by the future makers of "King Kong."
At the same time, "Close to Eden" is rich in realistic yet surreal or absurdist sights and sounds : the Mongols' daughter vigorously playing on the accordion the most popular of Spanish "paso dobles"; the visits by a friendly ever-soused neighbor who brings a poster of "my brother in America"... Sylvester Stallone; the unseen Russian couple making love while outside their locked door, their little girl recites Lenin-glorifying poetry; a horseman in the corridors of the apartment house; the hotel pianist playing Chopin then mounting Gombo's spare horse, in his tuxedo.
This charming film has top photography and superior sound, even on the monaural speakers of the Art Theater.
It was Oscar-nominated, losing to "Indochina" which was not half as good or original.It did, however, win the top prize at the 1991 Berlin Festival, where it was shown at 2 hours -- 14 more minutes of pleasure than on the U.S. release print.
[ Publ. 12 Febr. 1993]