A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, R, 116 mins.
2008, R, 116 mins.
Alexandria: Catinca Untaru / Roy/Black Bandit: Lee Pace / Charles
Darwin: Leo Bill / Governor Odious: Daniel Caltagirone / Nurse/Princess:
a film shoot that spawned 26 locations across 18 countries over a period
of four years, Tarsem’s THE FALL triumphantly emerges as one of the most
hauntingly and indescribably beautiful films I have ever seen.
Financed largely on the director’s own dollar and – by his own
frank admission – not containing one shred of computer visual effects
tinkering, Tarsem’s achievement is a massive tour de force of stunning
and vivid fairy tale visions set over top of the harsh reality
of two unlikely friends that suffer – in one form or another – in a
1920’s Los Angeles hospital. The
result is a film that is an unapologetic feast for the eyes and,
unexpectedly, a thoughtful and tear-inducing tale of two tortured souls -
one looking for companionship, the other redemption.
Singh (his full name, but he often goes by the moniker “Tarsem” in his
film credits) churned out a successful career of making visually arresting
music videos (he filmed REM’s “Loosing My Religion” to much popular
and critical praise) before he released his amazing THE CELL from 2000,
which was an evocative and unique serial killer tale which involved an FBI
agent literally going into the psyche of a madman.
That filmed launched Tarsem as a major new directorial visionary (a
label that most first time filmmakers only dream of achieving).
Since THE CELL, Tarsem has been hard at work on THE FALL, his labor
of love that debuted at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and
finally saw a regrettably limited theatrical release earlier this year.
Having not had the pleasure of seeing THE FALL on a large screen is
a shame, but the recently released Blu-Ray edition of the film thoroughly
does justice to Tarsem's unparalleled eye for painterly and dreamy surrealistic
one of the best looking films I’ve seen in a long time, which is perhaps
no doubt a result of the pain-stakingly long time it took Tarsem to bring
this film forward to completion. The
story of the making of this film is almost as thought-provoking as the film
itself: Being a staunch
admirer of the 1981 Bulgarian film YO HO HO, Tarsem placed it upon himself
to adapt it with an obsessive zeal and perseverance that would make
Werner Herzog blush with envy. Gathering
up is own funding, Tarsem trekked the globe to achieve his luminous
and phenomenal exterior footage over a four year period. He pieced
together all of the diverse fantasy images and combined them with a story
grounded in the reality of a suicidal stuntman that is befriended by a
shy, but wide-eyed and enthusiastic, young girl.
This obviously was a massive undertaking, which underlines the
director’s mania and perhaps his own artistic narcissism. However,
it's sure hard to criticize Tarsem with his results.
Most films cobbled together from years of footage would
most likely lack fluidity and
cohesion, but THE FALL is utterly seamless.
There’s never a moment where you feel that this is a hatchet job
combining years of divergent images from different locales.
discuss the visual allure of the film in a moment, but I feel that many
filmgoers will overlook the touchingly sad and poignant human drama within
the dreamy landscape of the film. Opening with a stark title card that states “Los Angeles”
and “a long time ago,” THE FALL begins in the mid-1910’s in L.A.
with a virtuoso black and white sequence.
Roy Walker (Lee Pace from TV’s cult hit PUSHING DAISES, and a
major talent in the making) is a stuntman during the early heyday of
Hollywood productions. After
severely injuring himself he finds himself in a hospital, essentially paralyzed him from the
Physically and emotional destroyed, Roy contemplates suicide.
meet another patient, albeit much younger and less disabled, in the form
of the blissfully cute and innocently naive Alexandria (newcomer Catinca
Untaru, in one of the most naturalistic child performances I’ve seen)
who has broken her arm. She
is the complete opposite of Roy in every way:
He is a downtrodden and lonely figure that sees the end near,
whereas she has a passion for exploring life to its fullest. These two polar opposites have an unavoidable meeting when
Roy accidentally intercepts a note from Alexandria that was meant for a
nurse. To pass the time, Roy
tells the precocious and energetic child an elaborate fable of five heroes
as they battle an evil Governor. Alexandria
is instantly captivated by Roy’s imaginative and compelling bedtime
story, but Roy is far from innocent:
His ulterior motive is to shamefully use Alexandria to coerce her
to get him morphine tablets so he can kill himself.
FALL will draw obvious parallels to THE PRINCESS BRIDE in the manner it
traverses back and forth between the real world of the storyteller and the
imaginative world that the child envisions while listening to the tale.
However, THE FALL is clearly THE PRINCESS BRIDE’s superior in
the way it conjures up bleak and unsettling visuals and symbolic imagery.
The tale within the film’s story involves a colorful assortment
of swashbuckling heroes: We
have a tough Indian warrior (Jeetu Verman), a buff ex-slave (Marcus Wesley),
a man that is highly adept with explosives (Robin Smith), Charles Darwin
(yes, that one, played by Leo Bill), a mystic (Julian Bleach) and, last
but not least, a Zorro-esque masked bandit (at first played by Emil
Hostina and later played by Pace, which serves to bridge the imagined
story with the “real” story). All of these heroes battle the evil and despotic Governor
THE FALL also has echoes of
THE WIZARD OF OZ in the sense that both Dorothy and Alexandria envision
their fantasy comrades as being variations of people they have met or know
in the real world. What’s crucial here is that the world Roy describes is
envisioned through the mindset of the child.
The central theme of THE FALL is how the beleaguered Roy opens up
Alexandria’s eyes past her complacent gullibility with how she sees the
world. At first, Alexandria has
no clue about the nature of the pills that Roy convinces her to get (the
scene where she delivers the bottle to him is heartbreaking), but as Roy
continues to develop the darker nature of his fable (which includes
permutations from his real life), Alexandria grows out of her naiveté and
soon begins to slowly understand the dour nature and purpose of Roy’s
Of course, the real star of
THE FALL is its astoundingly realized visual opulence.
Tarsem has been an outspoken challenger of the widespread usage of
CGI in modern films, which he thinks adds too much artificiality to the
proceedings. After viewing
THE FALL, it’s clear that he has a very valid point.
I marveled when films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and the first STAR
WARS film revolutionized the industry with their state of the art
aesthetics; this was a
decidedly more innocent and less literate time for filmgoers in the sense
that we marveled at the images and wondered, with awe, how they were
achieved. The modern CG
revolution has hindered that sense of ethereal escapism: we see images and
are self aware that computer trickery was the culprit.
I have longed for the day when movies will re-capture my feverous curiosity
I have longed for the day when movies will re-capture my feverous curiosity in them.
THE FALL is one of those
films. It works on audiences
in the exact opposite extreme that most computer effects heavy films do: Tarsem’s
film is a celebration of old school filmmaking artifice and storytelling
that, more than just about any recent film, genuinely stirs our
imaginations. I found myself
being transported by the bold and extraordinary visuals without fully
understand them. THE FALL so
magically engages and captivates the viewer that you spend more time
experiencing them than you do scrutinizing them. The “magic” here is not knowing how Tarsem achieved his impossibly lush and operatic
Some films hope to achieve a
few memorable images; THE FALL is a wall-to-wall treasure trove of breathtaking
visions. Tarsem uses the
screen like a canvas: just about every image in the film’s intoxicating imagined
universe is meticulously composed. Consider
some of the many evocative and trancelike images:
The scene involving the heroes riding a swimming elephant ashore; a
panoramic vista showing off a extravagant blue city; an small and isolated
island made out of sparkling white sand that is completely surrounded by a
massive ocean; a fabulously timed fade transition from a man's head to a
vast field, and – most impressively – a gigantic and imposing
labyrinth of intersecting stairwells. In an age where many filmgoers feel starved for originality
and ingenuity in movies, THE FALL will more than open the most complacent
eyes to its bewitching and powerful dreamscape.
And…yes…the human element
in the film also is unpredictably moving.
The two main leads bring such a warmth and unforced chemistry to
the proceedings. Pace in
particular has a very thorny task of both playing a man that is sensitive to
Alexandria’s yearnings for storytelling and a level of selfishness
in using the girl to achieve a more ghastly motive.
Catinca Untaru is an astounding find: She spoke no English before filming commenced and her command of the language is shaky at best in the
film, but the key this Romanian actress’ performance in her limitless
spirit and how she so
effortlessly captures her character’s incorruptibility and childlike
passions for escaping the world around her that she does not understand. She attains such an untamed purity and cheerfulness with
Alexandria that makes her later scenes involving her self-awareness to
Roy’s plight all the more tragic and sad.
Just look at one tear-jerking moment between herself and Roy
where she lays bandaged up in a hospital bed after an errand for him goes
afoul. This instance, where
both characters experience positive growth through dire circumstances, is
phenomenally simple in execution compared to the rest of the film: It's THE FALL’s most tender and unforgettable moment.