Mexican director Maria Novaro, whose lovely “Danzon” was shown in Directors Fortnight at the 1991 Cannes fest, has made another engaging drama that centers on women. Set in the border town of Tijuana, “The Garden of Eden” presents a charming portrait of three women whose paths crisscross and destinies intermingle. Prospects for theatrical release are excellent for a film marked by generosity of spirit and humanist compassion in its depiction of marginal lives.
As in her previous work, a light feminist streak runs through Novaro’s new film. Serena (Gabriela Roel), a young widow, arrives at her aunt’s home in Tijuana with her three children in her attempt to build a new life for her family. Jane (Renee Coleman), a sexy American, who’s looking for her close friend, artist Elizabeth (Rosario Sagrav), also lands in town.
On the surface, the three women seem to be types, as Serena is a native Mexican, Jane a white American and Elizabeth Mexican-American. But it’s to Novaro’s credit that each woman gradually emerges as a fully fleshed individual with her distinctive traits, needs and problems.
Despite various backgrounds, what unites the three beautiful and intelligent women is their search for a more meaningful life. Obviously, that is most exacting for Elizabeth, an artist of mixed ethnicity who has returned to Mexico in search of her roots.
Pic, which Novaro co-wrote with her sister Beatriz, conveys in enchanting detail the nuanced texture of life in a small border town: the touristy commercial aspects, drug dealings and risky attempts to cross the border in the quest for employment and a better life. But unlike Tony Richardson’s American pic “The Border,” which had a nasty feel in its portrayal of border crossing, the helicopter patrols, routine arrests and deportations that prevail in Novaro’s film are just one of the many issues she examines.
Novaro’s attitude toward her characters, male and female, is remarkably open. As writer and director, she shows sensitivity to Jane’s brother Frank (Joseph Culp), a man who has given up writing and found a new cause in studying the conduct of whales.
Felipe (Bruno Bichir), the only other male, is a handsome Mexican peasant whose chief ambition is to escape to the American side and who, in the process, has an affair with Jane.
Narrative is loosely structured, and it takes some time for this leisurely paced pic to build its power through the accumulation of details.
Eric A. Edwards’ atmospheric lensing in Tijuana and San Diego is magnificent, capturing in exquisite long shots the 15-mile steel wall that divides the two countries. The visual imagery stresses the contradictory meanings of a border town: sleazy and fun, refuge for some but prison for others, desert and garden (hence the title).