Tarsem's The Fall

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to highlight films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…

err Everywhere! I can’t really nail down exactly which country is behind this week’s film, The Fall. IMDB lists it as an India/UK/US co-production, filming occurred in over twenty different countries, and director Tarsem Singh financed the film himself without studio involvement (Hollywood or otherwise.) The details aren’t important though as the bottom line is the same. It’s not an American movie.

The Fall opens with black & white scenes of slow motion chaos before settling into the colorful world of “Los Angeles, Once Upon A Time.” Young Alexandria (Cantinca Untaru) resides in a hospital recovering with a broken arm. Bored of the bedridden and germ-infested kids filling the Children’s Ward, she wanders off and meets Roy (Lee Pace), a movie stuntman paralyzed after a horse stunt went bad. He begins to tell Alexandria a story about five (soon six) adventures on a quest to kill the evil Governor Odious. A masked bandit, an ex-slave, an Indian, an Italian explosives expert, and Charles Darwin (and a mystic that crawls from the birth canal of a burning tree) make up the motley group, and as the story progresses the motivation behind the tale becomes clear. What started as a cure for his own boredom and loneliness has become something more, and soon the stuntman with both a broken back and a broken heart is asking his new friend to steal a bottle of morphine pills.

It would be wrong to share more of the story… not for fear of ruining a surprise, but because there’s actually very little of it left. Instead, that kernel of a plot is wrapped in a sumptuous feast of visuals and creativity as Roy’s tale comes to life before our eyes with breathtaking beauty and imagination. We see Roy’s words as Alexandria sees them, with his characters imagined as people she knows from her own life. Visuals and circumstances can change on a whim as when she “sees” a bearded Indian in a turban as opposed to the Native American Roy intends when he speaks of squaws and wigwams. Filmed over four years in twenty or so countries, The Fall is a National Geographic special with an attached narrative. South Africa, India, Bali, Italy, Cambodia… all these places and more are on display as you’ve rarely seen them before. From wide shots of rolling sand dunes or clear blue ocean to architectural feats of wonder, your eyes can barely take it all in before the next fantastic image fills the screen. An elephant, from above and below, swimming in crystal clear water. An M.C. Escher-like series of exposed stairways. A huge, white banner that slowly turns blood red as an oath of revenge is sworn upon its cloth. Even death can be beautiful and strange as when a man is bludgeoned from behind only to release a mouthful of birds from between his lips.

The simplicity of the tale would normally lose it points, but here it works mostly to the film’s advantage. At its core, The Fall is a fable about the importance of storytelling and of the stories themselves. The duo create something seemingly light and minor that blossoms into something bigger than just the two of them. The beauty and the point of it all may not be enough for impatient viewers expecting a more traditionally epic experience. The action scenes for example fail on the kinetic level, but impress as purely visual spectacle. A man’s back is filled with arrows until he falls and comes to rest on the projectiles themselves like a bed of nails. A ceremony populated by mud people becomes a choreographed “dance” of paraplegics and their jazz hands. A princess lost in a fortress of stairs to nowhere takes the only way out which is down. This the world as described by a suicidal Hollywood stuntman and envisioned by an imaginative little girl. It’s that shared ability to create and to place ourselves within that creation that drives The Fall to an ending that may leave some unsatisfied. But as Alexandria sees Roy onscreen, she begins to see him in every movie and in every stunt. It’s a reminder that any worthwhile story, whether on the page or on the screen, is an unfinished creation until it finds an audience.

Tarsem is an acclaimed commercial/music video director and financed the film from his own pockets. He traveled the world for various ads or videos, and when the shoot was finished he would fly in his cast and crew to film some scenes for the movie. His only previous movie credit is 2000’s beautiful (but empty) The Cell with Jennifer Lopez. Shades of that film are visible here as when the heroes come upon a chandelier made from the corpses of tortured men and in the extravagant costume design by Eiko Ishioka (The Cell, Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The cast consists of mostly unknowns, with the exception of Pushing Daisies‘ Pace, but Untaru steals the film. This is all the more impressive as the Romanian girl barely knew a word of English and would recite her lines through memorization. In a more straight forward movie this wouldn’t work as Tarsem keeps several exchanges here where Untaru has clearly lost her focus. Pace brings her back slowly each time… a scene where she presents him with “food” from the chapel, in reality a stolen Eucharist, is remarkably funny and endearing.

Working outside of the system has its clear advantages, but it also has its problems. Distribution was clearly one of them. Officially released in 2006, The Fall has only recently received sporadic theatrical showings (thanks to the presentation of David Fincher and Spike Jonze) and a DVD this past July. If you can catch it on the big screen you should definitely do so, but if not I highly recommend the DVD.

The Upside: Beautiful and sweet; visually amazing and impressive without a single CGI shot in the film; perfectly balanced score by Krishna Levy; Cantinca Untaru is amazing; did I mention this movie is a visual symphony of colors, motion, and imagery?

The Downside: The resolution of the story within the story could have been stronger; the story is light weight; audience limited by an undeserved R-rating for nothing more than a few bloody squibs; it should have been filmed in IMAX

As a special bonus, have a look at the breathtaking images from The Fall in the gallery below.


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