Garden of Eden, The (1994): Mexican Maria Novaro’s Tale of Three Women

(El Jardin Del Eden)

Cannes Film Fest 1994–Mexico’s prominent female director Maria Novaro, whose lovely Danzon was shown in “Fortnight Directors” at the 1991 Cannes Festival, has made another winningly engaging drama that centers on women.

Set in the border town of Tijuana, The Garden of Eden presents a charming portrait of three different women whose paths criss-cross and destinies intermingle. Prospects for theatrical release are excellent for a film which is marked by generosity of spirit and humanist compassion in its depiction of marginal lives.

Like her previous films, a light feminist streak run through Novaro’s new one, which might as well have been titled “Three Women.” 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 native Mexican, Jane is white-American, and Elizabeth Mexican-American. However, it’s to the credit of Novaro, who co-wrote the script with her sister Beatriz, that gradually each woman 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, this is most exacting for Elizabeth, an artist of mixed ethnicity who has returned to Mexico in search of her roots.

Pic conveys in small enchanting details the nuanced texture of life in a small border town: the touristic-commercial aspects, drug-dealings, and risky attempts to cross the border, looking for employment and 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 and routine arrests and deportations prevail in Novaro’s film, but they are just one issue among many others she examines.

Novaro’s attitude toward her characters, male and female, is remarkably open and non-judgmental. As writer and director, she shows sensitivity to Jane’s brother Frank, 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 in the process has an affair with Jane.

Narrative is loosely structured: there are no “big” scenes and only few melodramatic confrontations. It takes some time for leisurely-paced pic to build its power, which is achieved through accumulation of many details.

Shot on location in Tijuana and San Diego, Eric A. Edwards’ atmospheric lensing 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).

There is real love in Novaro’s staging of the incidents and in the way she controls the physical movement of her characters. With a keen eye, she imparts an authentic feel for the melange of languages spoken in the region: Spanish, English, “Spanglish” and others.

It is significant that the last image is of whales freely swimming in the ocean, for unlike human beings they are unrestricted by geographical or political barriers.