Close to Eden
1991, PG, 118 min. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Starring Badema, Bayaertu, Vladimir Gostukhin.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 7, 1993
There's a kind of loopy fiction yet anthropological honesty to this Russian-made (and French-produced) movie set in the isolated steppes of Chinese Inner Mongolia. Modern culture intersects with pre-industrial traditions and the results are both strange and fascinating. Close to Eden tells the story of Mongolian shepherd Gombo (Bayaertu) and his family consisting of his city-bred wife Pagma (Badema), their three children (the numerical limit imposed by the Chinese government) and Gombo's mother who lives with them. Their life follows ancient customs, there is little that bespeaks their existence in the 20th century. But there are the little things; a poster of Stallone as Rambo, the daughter playing Mozart on her accordion, the curious fascination of popping plastic bubble-packing between one's fingers. Fearing an illegal fourth child, the more modern Pagma sends Gombo to the city to purchase condoms. (Also on his shopping list is a TV.) The condoms he's too afraid to request from the pharmacy's all-female sales staff. Besides, there's his cautionary visitation from Genghis Khan, himself, who warns Gombo of complicity with modern ways. Into this world geography of the steppes comes Sergei (Gostukhin), a Russian trucker who is part of a work crew building a bridge that will connect the remote area with the modern world. When his truck derails, Sergei is taken in by Gombo and family and though they don't understand each other's language and customs, their burgeoning friendship forms the basis for most of the movie's dramatic action. Yet plot is not key in this movie, more at the heart is its sense of place and its moment in time. As its canvas sweeps past us, we become absorbed by its stunning lyricism. Scenes like the slaughter of a sheep for dinner contain mixtures of primitive brutality and gentle compassion. Close to Eden ultimately, may not add up to much in terms of what it tells us about the encroachment of civilization on the dwindling frontier. It's more caught up with quirks than analysis. (At times it has an almost Gods Are Crazy-like cultural naïveté about the subject matter.) But there's no denying Close to Eden's wry humor and alluring charm that takes us on an excursion into uncharted territory.