A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #3


2008, R, 116 mins.

Alexandria: Catinca Untaru / Roy/Black Bandit: Lee Pace / Charles Darwin: Leo Bill / Governor Odious: Daniel Caltagirone / Nurse/Princess: Justine Waddell

Directed by Tarsem / Written by Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis and Tarsem, based on the 1981 movie "Yo Ho Ho."

With 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. 

Tarsem 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 imagery.  

This is 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. 

I will 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 waist down.  Physically and emotional destroyed, Roy contemplates suicide. 

We also 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. 

THE 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 Odious (Daniel Caltagirone). 

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 story. 

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 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 palette.

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 young 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. 

Some will argue – with reasonable accuracy – that the story of the real life hospitalized characters is just an excuse to close line the film with Tarsem’s unforgettably realized images.  But of course it is!  This is a film for viewers to savor for its ingenious use of cinematography, marvelously rendered compositions, and virtuoso practical, real world special effects.  THE FALL will stay with me for a long time because of its startling lack of artificiality.  What Tarsem has so thoroughly accomplished here is a stupendous feat of gloriously creative film resourcefulness that truly hypnotizes us; it’s a pure festival of traditional cinematic techniques, which, in a time of highly dubious CG effects heavy entertainments, makes it even more miraculous as an experience.  This may be the most eye-catching and artistically salient production you may ever see…but what may surprise you the most is that Tarsem marries his epically mounted images with an underlining human story of stirring sensitivity.  There is definitely more to this film than simply meets the eye. 

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