Following his sensitive rendering of orthodox Jewish life in “Kadosh” and the rigorous army aesthetics of Israel at war in “Kippur,” director Amos Gitai takes a big leap backward with “Eden,” a disconnected love story set amid historical rumblings (WWII, Zionism, the birth of Israel, the British occupation, etc.). Based on the novel “Homely Girl” by Arthur Miller, who makes his screen debut as the heroine’s father, the film is a mass of undigested drama, played by the actors in unconvincing English on unrealistic sets. The story’s habit of nonchalantly leaping through time and space clouds matters further.
The screenplay moves Miller’s story from New York’s communist milieu in the 1930s and 1940s to a seaside town in Israel, which may be Tel Aviv under construction. The original “homely girl” here turns into Sam, played by the delicately beautiful Samantha Morton of “Sweet and Lowdown.”
Morton’s marked British accent notwithstanding, she is a Yank from Connecticut, sister of the unscrupulous young businessman Kalman (Danny Huston) and daughter of a skeptical man played by Miller himself. In a static opening scene, Kalman reveals to pere his intention of immigrating to future Israel and making money by buying and selling land. His father wonders where the Palestinians are going to live, and notes that it’s the first time people have gone from capitalism to feudalism in one generation, a line that gives film its one laugh.
Sam and her idealistic architect husband Dov (the handsome Thomas Jane), both left-wing Zionists, have preceded Kalman to Palestine. Theirs is a very different vision of the future. While Dov plans to unite Arab and Jewish workers on his building crews, their German friend Kalkovsky (Luke Holland), owner of a bookstore, whips off letters to the authorities reminding them that they’ve signed agreements not to discriminate in any way between Palestinians and the new settlers. His firebrand lodger Silvia (Daphna Kastner) is less literary and expresses her hatred of the 18,000 occupying British army by constructing homemade bombs. After one explodes, British soldiers are glimpsed marching innocent Jewish settlers off for questioning. These pieces of history will come as a surprise to most auds and, had they been better dramatized, could have laid the foundations for a fascinating film.
What actually seems to interest Gitai is not the characters’ drama, always fragmentary and unbelievable, but the times they live in. Churchill’s BBC radio broadcasts (heard in post-war re-recordings) provide atmospheric background noise. Though these days it sounds particularly utopian, the characters’ dream to share a new, anti-imperialist nation with the local Palestinians is a historical idea worth recalling.
Unfortunately, ideas alone do not a good film make, and “Eden” struggles not only with dramatization but with lifeless, cardboard characters. Sam is at first depicted as a timid, polite girl who takes dictation for Dov and Kalkovsky without speaking up. The main blight on her existence is Dov’s disinterest in sex. It is hard to guess her thoughts and feelings, until suddenly she becomes a cynical, hard-nosed vamp who knows the score. Dov has abruptly gone off to fight the war with the Jewish brigade; the mad bomber Silvia has been carted off to jail. On their own now, Sam and Kalkovsky become lovers, an idyll that only lasts until Dov returns from the war in the next scene. He has become a hardened rapist of German peasant women, but no more skillful in bed with Sam.
Gitai seems to be reaching for a neutral visual style, but scenes shot in fixed frame or stylized pans only distance the story from viewers. The decision to shoot the whole film in English further drains off the authenticity pic desperately needs. The cast limps through nonsequiturs and lines like, “You despise me, don’t you?” and “You are an eternal mystery to me.”