My favorite movie of the year so far is "The Fall," the astounding visual feast directed by Tarsem Singh (or just Tarsem, as he apparently prefers to be called). Tarsem made his name and, apparently, his fortune as a successful director of commercials and music videos, and used his earnings to fund this extravagant project, filming in more than 18 countries over several years. The result is like nothing you've ever seen, a true celebration of the imagination and the magic of film.
Apparently the 1981 Bulgarian film "Yo Ho Ho," on which this film is based but which doesn't appear to be available with English subtitles, doesn't look anything like this film. (For pictures and an admiring review of that film, despite its "low production values, pretty horrible cinematography, and . . . hammy acting," see http://www.gotterdammerung.org/film/reviews/y/yo-ho-ho.html.) In 1915 Los Angeles, a silent film stuntman is hospitalized with a broken back after a fall, sustained while attempting a reckless stunt after losing his girlfriend to the movie's leading man. In the hospital he encounters five-year old Alexandria, her arm and collarbone awkwardly splinted after a fall sustained while picking oranges. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, her thick accent and forward innocence charm the man, who begins to tell her an epic tale of six heroes on a quest to vanquish the villainous Governor Odious ("Is this Governor Odious a bad man?" she asks, in all innocence.). He draws characters from his movie exploits, but the story comes to visual life through Alexandria's crude and colorful imagination: an Indian mourning the death of his squaw resembles not a Native American but a colorfully dressed prince of the Far East; the gentle naturalist Charles Darwin wears a boldly colored feathery coat that would be the envy of Bjork; and Governor Odious's evil objectives are carried out by black-robed hordes who bark and growl like a pack of angry wolves. Like a diminutive Dorothy creating her own Oz, Alexandria imagines a world populated by faces drawn from her actual surroundings and darkened by her own harrowing memories of being driven from her home by the "angry people" who killed her own father back in Romania.
Before long it becomes evident that the stuntman is suicidally depressed. After Alexandria offers him a stolen communion wafer ("Are you trying to save my soul?" he asks wryly, a question clearly lost on her), the stuntman sets out to lure Alexandria into stealing the means for a drug overdose. With each successive episode of his colorful tale, the sense of impending danger deepens, and Alexandria's urgent desire to hear the end of the stuntman's story intensifies along with her instinct, beyond the limits of her childish understanding, that her friend is in actual mortal danger and needs her help. The imagined adventure becomes the means for exorcising the stuntman's demons and, ultimately, for his redemption.
The beauty of the imagery actually took my breath away over and over again--underwater shots of a swimming elephant who performs an ocean rescue of five of the heroes, a primitive "mystic" who emerges from the bark of a burned out tree, the sweep of whirling skirts during a doomed wedding ceremony, a huge white expanse of cloth billowing from a guillotine, stained with blood, against a backdrop of harsh desert. And the film is anchored by two remarkable performances, of Lee Pace (the quirky star of TV's "Pushing Daisies") as the stuntman and little Catinca Untaru, a find as Alexandria. Her round face, bright eyes, and determined waddle are not movie-star cute, but rather are strangely mesmerizing; the director developed the dialogue and much of the imagery through hours of improvisation and experimentation with Untaru, giving her scenes with Pace an astonishingly unrehearsed feel and resulting in images more audacious than any adult could conceive without help. (Tarsem said in Premiere magazine that he couldn't get financing for the film once he professed his idea to have the child essentially write the script.) The power of the film rests, ultimately, on the remarkable tenderness between Pace and Untaru, which broke my heart.
Though it won awards to two European film festivals last year, most of the American reviews for the film are nowhere near as effusive as mine; actually, by way of fair warning, I'll acknowledge that some reviewers found it to be an overwrought mess. I could not disagree more--I maintain (especially after a second viewing) that the dazzling imagery serves a moving story that hangs together remarkably well. I'd class it with "Pan's Labyrinth," "Brazil," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," films that take wild risks to imagine a world that could only come to life on the screen. For sheer originality and inventiveness, "The Fall" puts hack jobs like the latest in the Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Carribean franchises to shame. This enthralling film is the real deal.
By the way, "Bigger Stronger Faster," which I enjoyed at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April, just opened at the Fox Tower in Portland and is definitely worth a look. (See my review posted on April 4, 2008.). I also highly recommend "Mongol," the Oscar-nominated film that was one of my very favorites at the Portland International Film Festival in February; it just opened at the Cinema 21 in Portland. I'll post a longer review of it sometime in the next week. "The Fall" has been out for about a month, though, so catch it on the big screen first if you can. ["The Fall" is rated R for violence, and is too dark for most children.]