Starring: Riccardo Scamarcio, Juliane Kohler, and Ulrich Tukur. Directed by Costa-Gavros
Rated M (Sexual references, nudity and coarse language). 110 min.
At the age of 76, Costa Gavros has given cinema a warm, engaging, but ultimately serious story about a young illegal immigrant from a country, which is never named. The hero of the movie, Elias (Riccardo Scamarcio), risks all to find adventure and life in another country. The story begins with a rusty boat in the Aegean Sea, carrying a load of illegal immigrants, desperate to fulfil their hopes of another life somewhere else. A Greek Coast Guard approaches and Elias decides to swim to shore. He wakes up on a Mediterranean beach in the south of France, surrounded by tourists on a nudist beach. The tourists are quietly enjoying a privileged holiday at Camp Eden, and the film is about how Elias journeys from Camp Eden to Paris, which is the city that Elias believes will fulfil his dreams. Paris is the focus of all his fantasies. It is the new home that will allow him to be reborn in another place.
Costa Gavros, who won the Palm D’Or in Cannes in 1982 for “Missing”, chooses to handle the complexities of immigrant life by staying away from excessively harsh and realistic treatments of them. Instead, he depicts Elias as a handsome, but naïve, Ulysses, engaging with people along an epic journey to reach his home. Passing himself off first as an employee of Camp Eden, Elias wanders around the resort, trying to fend off sexual threat, before one of the tourists, Christina (Juliane Kohler), finally traps him. While appearing to direct his story at a superficial level, Costa Gavros successfully parodies the decadent West taking advantage of a young innocent. En route to Paris, the film shows that poor people generally help Elias, while rich and privileged people treat him mostly as a sex object and try to take advantage of him in what way they can. His turbulent affair with Christina is offset by the kindness of a travelling magician, Nick Nickelby (Ulrich Tukur) who hires him as his assistant at Camp Eden. The magician, however, who becomes his goal for contact in Paris, ultimately rejects him as a person who just doesn’t matter. Elias’s journey is very much one through a class-conscious Europe.
Throughout the film, there is almost a Buster Keaton or Chaplainesque style to Elias’s misfortunes. He looks puzzled, bewildered or surprised at almost every turn. However, there is a serious tone preserved throughout, and the film is something of a contemporary reworking of the Odyssey in a modern political context. We see Elias among the rich of Camp Eden, and later among the poor working in French factories, where immigrants are exploited shamefully. Scenes represent the film’s wide coverage of different attitudes towards immigrants and their life experiences. Elias is treated cruelly by some people, and kindly by others; and goodness, warmth, and rejection go hand in hand. Overall, humanity triumphs in the movie. The film never preaches, but chooses to personalize its issues in a succession of incidents that happen to Elias. It is filled with marvellous cameo performances – the grieving woman, who feels sorry for him and gives him her dead husband’s coat; the gypsies who protect him from the Police at their peril; the waiter in Paris who orders Elias to leave but stands blocking him from the view of others while he finishes a customer’s left-over meal; and the kindly farmer who longingly sits by him sleeping, while she also watches affectionately over her own children. In the end, we find that it is our attitudes that have been reshaped, not Elias’s behaviour. The whole film is a powerful testament to a socially-engaged Director.
Costa Gavros stamps the film characteristically by trying to put us in Elias’s shoes, asking for understanding so that we can better appreciate his predicament. There is very little dialogue in this film, conveying again the dependency on other than words to carry the film’s messages. The quality of the movie also owes a great deal to its cinematographer, Patrick Blossier, whose work is excellent; Blossier not only captures landscapes wonderfully well, but also explores intently the faces and expressions of everyone Elias meets on his journey.
This film is about a young man with an unknown past, who is facing a future that is equally uncertain. We are asked to judge the immigrant’s life in terms of how we judge Elias as a human being. The film’s light touch allows us to move past easy generalisations to appreciate more insightfully the complex layers of immigrant life. This is a socially meaningful film, that examines a significant, contemporary human problem, and it does so gently and intelligently, and in a highly involving way.
Out August 20, 2009 Sharmill Films
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.