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‘Close to Eden’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 20, 1992


Nikita Mikhalkov
Badema Bayaertu, Vladimir Gostukhin
Not rated

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Even if Nikita Mikhalkov's "Close to Eden" moves at a snail's pace, even if the characters remain distant and opaque, the movie leaves at least one indelible memory.

The film takes place on the epic rolling steppes of China's Inner Mongolia, and it's those endless green-carpeted plains that linger most vividly in the mind. Set against this timeless backdrop, every human story, every endeavor seems reduced to insignificance.

This transcendental beauty, this passionate, almost holy regard for place is what saves "Close to Eden" from shrinking into nonexistence. Written by Mikhalkov and Roustam Ibraguimbekov, the film tells the story of a young Mongolian couple, Gombo and Pagma (the Mongolian actors Bayaertu and Badema), who herd sheep and live in the same manner that generations of Mongolians have lived.

The modern world feels light-years away from this bucolic existence. But because Mikhalkov would like to make some sweeping generalization about the encroachment of civilization and its destructive effect on noble primitive lifestyles, he has Sergei, a robust but very sleepy Soviet trucker (Vladimir Gostukhin), crash into their lives, forever destroying their peaceful Eden.

Actually, the modern world is just around the corner. Because Gombo and Pagma are considered part of a minority, the government allows them to have only three children. And Pagma, fearful of having yet another child, refuses to have sex with her husband until he does something to avoid making her pregnant. "Like what?" he asks Pagma, who grew up in the city and knows about such things. "Like condoms," she answers.

The absurd incongruity of having Gombo head for town with his horses loaded on the back of Sergei's truck on a mission to buy rubbers is conveyed in beautiful detail. (I loved the shots of Gombo and his horses trotting through the paved streets of the city.) But while some of the picture is breathtakingly well-directed, the filmmaker's eye seems far more engaged than his head. He's fantastic at capturing the feel and pulse of the couple's life, of their chores and daily habits.

On this basic anthropological level, "Close to Eden" is superb. But the narrative mold used to organize these details not only gets in the way for the audience, but seems to have gotten in Mikhalkov's way too. When he focuses on the characters' surroundings and their way of life, we feel as if we're seeing things we've never seen before; a culture that was once completely unknown is now revealed, much in the same way the culture of the Eskimos was revealed in Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North." And if Mikhalkov had simply dispensed with his story and focused on these documentary jewels, "Close to Eden" might have been a masterpiece. As it is, the jewels are there, but they're mixed together with less precious stones.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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