Weird and wonderful, The Fall is nothing short of a contemporary The Wizard of Oz, a hypnotic and intoxicating tale of ravishing beauty and spellbinding imagination.
Sometime around the dawn of cinema, a movie stuntman languishes in a Los Angeles hospital after a fall from a bridge shatters his spine as well as any chance that he will ever walk again. It was an impossibly dangerous stunt. Only a madman would have dared it. The sort of madman whose beautiful girlfriend has left him for the film's dashing leading man. One level up, a five-year-old immigrant girl with a smashed arm recovers after tumbling from an orange tree in the grove where her itinerant, Romanian family labors. Driven by an insatiable curiosity, she wanders the hospital grounds, collecting trinkets to tuck away in a cigar box clutched inelegantly at the end of her cast-encased arm.
Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) is looking for a friend and Roy (Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace) is looking for a way out. Roy woos Alexandria to his bedside with tales of epic heroes, magical lands and larger-than-life quests. He doles out only a morsel of his story at a time. If she wants to hear more, she'll have to undertake a perilous quest of her own—stealing a bottle of morphine pills from the infirmary. He tells her he is having trouble sleeping, but we know he wants the pills so that he can sleep forever. His tale is so enchanting that Alexandria will do whatever Roy asks of her.
His tall tale is one of bloody revenge. Five men find their lives joined together by one common bond—the desire to slay the wicked King Odious. There is the Italian, a bomb-maker of such skill that the fretful king banished him from those he loved forever; an Indian whose wife was kidnapped and murdered by the king for rebuffing his advances; the young naturalist Charles Darwin, whose creatures the king butchers for sport; an African and former slave in the king's fields; and finally, the masked bandit, whose twin brother was executed by Odious. With the help of an aboriginal shaman, the men set out to find the loathsome ruler. It is a quest which will, quite literally, take them around the world and back again. In the process, a beautiful queen-to-be (Justine Waddell) will be rescued. And before it is over, more than just the king's blood will be spilt.
As Roy weaves his tale, reality and fantasy blend together, each world informing the other. He populates his yarn with characters borrowed from real life. Patients and doctors find themselves clad as exotic buccaneers and intrepid adventurers. Events that occur in Los Angles seep into Roy's plot and color events. Fantastical elements from Odious' kingdom influence the actions of those in the real world.
As the story draws to its inevitable conclusion, transforming from a pleasing fable into a grim(m) fairy tale, so too does Roy's plan to take his own life. A man of action now relegated to a life of immobility, the stuntman wants nothing more than to end both stories. "There's no happy ending with me!" he confesses as Alexandria begins to realize that his story may not be so fanciful after all. When she begs to know why his tall tale has taken a darker turn, he tells her matter of factly, "It's my story!" "It's mine too," she sobs, unable to reconcile the fact that there is far more at stake than just the fates of her imaginary friends. Roy alone holds the power over life and death.
The Indian director who goes by the simple moniker Tarsem makes films from alternate dimensions. His hypotonic visual stylings are second to none. His operatic imagination is phosphorescent. He captures images on film that Salvador Dali only managed to coax with paint. Fueled by an experimental mindset, Tarsem's work has one foot in realism and another in the land of dreams—dreams which, more often than not, transform at some point into the stuff of nightmares. The Cell, his first feature film, was not a great work of art, but was imbued with imagery of such astonishing, outrageous power as to make it compulsory viewing.
The Fall, produced by two directors known as hypnotic masters in their own right—Fight Club's David Fincher and Being John Malcovich's Spike Jones—evokes the otherworldly quality of Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and Julie Taymor's Titus.
The Fall is suffused with all things fantastical: swimming elephants, opulent cathedrals, whirling dervishes, phalanxes of Pacific Islander, armor-clad knights, exotic palaces, vibrant costumes, burning bushes, camera obscura, Brothers Quay-style animation and images of such symmetry and Escheresque complexity that it is hard to believe that the film utilizes almost no computer generated imagery. Instead, The Fall mines the planet, visiting more than two dozen countries for some of the most astonishing locales ever set to film. The imagery takes on an ethereal splendor when married to Beethoven's thunderous Symphony No. 7.
The acting in The Fall is as stylized as the visuals and is distinctive enough to warrant mentioning. You may be tempted to find the acting over-wrought, wooden or even pedestrian. Not so fast. Tarsem toys with his audience, creating characters that act implausibly in the fantasy world of Roy's imagination but completely as we would expect when the camera breaches the mythology to return to reality. The characterizations are part and parcel of the fantasy as well as the periodically bewildered, emotionally agitated nature of the teller.
Catinca Untaru is one of the best young actresses working today. Either that or every take of her is the ad-libbed ramblings of someone wrestling mightily with a language she can barely speak. I suspect it is the latter. Contrary to what one might think, however, the actress's verbal faltering adds to her character's authenticity and charm.
The Fall is wholly beguiling, an utterly transportive piece of filmmaking as dazzling in its visual audacity as it is in its spartan simplicity. It stole the breath from the lungs and coaxed tears from my eyes. And it's the best thing I've seen all year.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What does the title of the film mean? Do you feel it is a biblical allusion to humankind's banishment from the Garden and our separation form God? Why or what not?
- While eating Eucharist wafers that Alexandria stole for him, Roy asks her, "Are you trying to save me?" What do you think?
- Why are there so many shots in the film containing crucifixes? Discuss.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Fall is rated R for some violent images—not so much for the violence itself, but the bizarre manner in which it is portrayed. It's not a film for children, because its surreality is sure to drive them to distraction. There is next to no profanity, though the Lord's name is used in vain. While there is no nudity, we briefly overhear a couple making love.
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