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The Absence of Eden review: Powerful political film

Zoe Saldaña and a little girl have their heads close together with sad expressions in the political film The Absence of Eden

With impressive performances and stunning cinematography, Marco Perego’s The Absence of Eden is a timely political film.

The Absence of Eden is Marco Perego’s debut film: Perego also co-wrote the film with Rick Rapoza and collaborated with Argentine cinematographer Javier Juliá for this project. While not without its flaws, it’s an important and emotional watch. While movies on similar topics seem to be somewhat on the rise lately, films like this still feel very rare, especially in the way they focus on immigrant stories and portray immigrants as real people rather than simply political subjects.

The Absence of Eden follows two parallel stories that eventually intertwine. On one side of the border, Mexican private dancer Esmeralda (Avatar’s Zoe Saldaña) has to flee her country using the services of human smugglers. During her journey, she starts looking after a frightened young girl who is also attempting to cross the border to the United States. On the other side, we see Shipp (Garrett Hedlund), an ICE agent and his new partner Dobbins (Chris Coy). For Shipp, the border issue becomes even more personal when he eventually finds out that his girlfriend (Adria Arjona, known for Good Omens and Andor) is an undocumented immigrant.

From the opening sequence, the visuals of The Absence of Eden are incredibly powerful and immediately became one of my favourite things in the movie. The visionary and dream-like style of filmmaking is particularly impactful, as it allows the audience to explore the characters’ stories and emotions even more. This highly constructed visual style may seem a little over the top at first, but it is very well integrated within the plot of the film and also serves its story. The cinematography by Javier Juliá (Argentina, 1985) particularly elevates the film.

The acting in The Absence of Eden is also superb, making us empathise with the characters on screen. Zoe Saldaña and Adria Arjona both stand out: their performances highlight the struggles and fears that immigrant women face daily, as they portray these characters in all their layers and heartbreaking complexities. Working with her real-life husband Marco Perego, Saldaña is particularly impressive in what may very well be a career-defining performance. This highly emotional and intense role is also a nice break from the usual blockbuster role the actress is best known for and proves her versatility and range.

Garrett Hedlund kisses Adria Arjona on the forehead, in the dark, in political film The Absence of Eden
Garrett Hedlund and Adria Arjona in The Absence of Eden (Courtesy of Vertical and Roadside Attractions)

Sadly, the film falls into overused tropes on immigration and immigrant stories. While these tales may very well have a foundation in real life, The Absence of Eden still feels predictable, and its resolution ends up looking like something we have seen countless times before. The film’s scriptwriting is probably its weakest element; it constantly feels like that there is so much left unsaid about these characters and their motivations. This is especially true for the members of the ICE police: while the film attempts to humanise these characters, they are not explored with enough depth for us to sympathise with them, or for the commentary on the very institution they are part of to shine through.

From a storytelling point of view, The Absence of Eden could have had a stronger focus on Esmeralda. I would have loved to see more of her story and her relationship with the young girl she meets at the beginning of the film and decides to care for. Her story and this relationship are very much the most interesting and unique part of the whole script; while the dual focus of the story is fascinating, this ultimately undermines the emotional side of the story. Being told either Esmeralda or Shipp’s story would have had a lot more impact, as it would have been a lot easier for the audience to connect with the character, rather than constantly jumping between two tales whose connection only becomes clear at the end of the movie.

Overall, The Absence of Eden is undoubtedly a much-needed film in today’s political scenario. This is especially true given the upcoming elections in the United States, which seem to always spark discussions around immigration and border policies. But while the movie is elevated by some key performances and visionary cinematography, I could not help but think that The Absence of Eden could have been a lot better, and more impactful than what the final product ended up being.

The Absence of Eden was released in US theaters on April 12, 2024.

The Absence of Eden: Trailer (Roadside Attractions)
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