(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Filmed over a period of 4 years in 18 different countries, Tarsem’s The Fall is an unforgettable movie experience. In 1920s Los Angeles, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a 5-year-old girl hospitalized from a fall, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Roy (Lee Pace), a Hollywood stuntman shattered by a near-fatal movie set accident and his lover’s betrayal. To pass the time, he tells Alexandria the epic story of Governor Odious and the 5 remarkable heroes determined to defeat him- a dazzling world of magic and myth. Only when the line between reality and fantasy begins to dissolve does Alexandria realize how much is truly at stake.
– From DVD Production Notes
Without a doubt, The Fall is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. It took me a while to find it, since it passed through theaters in a blink of an eye and faded quickly into obscurity. Even the support of David Fincher and Spike Jonze didn’t place it on the cultural map, and for a while I regarded it as nothing but a fascinating preview on other DVDs.
A few years passed before I was able to see it, then by chance I found a copy in a grocery store bargain bin. Shortly after I was living in an isolated area with no wi-fi and limited entertainment. To sum up: I ended up living with The Fall for three months.
During this time I tried to describe the film to the uninitiated. I discovered it was a tough sell. Putting the plot into words made it seem spare and blasé, because there is no way to do the visuals justice. Moreover, suggesting any type of attachment between a grown man and a little girl prompted some people to become uncomfortable or assume the worst.
In the end I realized The Fall is something that won’t be understood unless it’s seen. The story rests firmly in the theater of the mind, and not only that- it’s a child’s theater of the mind. The experience instantly takes you back to being five, a state of remaining untouched yet absorbing everything at once.
This is compounded by the child at the center of the story. Alexandria’s point of view is as fascinating as it is foreign. She’s not only five years old, but a Romanian immigrant who works in the orchards of Los Angeles. During her hospital stay she is immersed in an adult world she doesn’t understand, with only her imagination and resilience to sustain her.
I also have to point out that she isn’t played by the typical child actress. The casting of Catinca Untaru is singular in every way- her facial expressions, her body type, her accent, voice and the delivery of her lines (often improvised). Her genuineness imbues everything she does, and overall it’s an amazing performance.
When it comes to themes, The Fall suggests several over and over again. It’s about storytelling. It’s about innocence. It’s about movies and the power of imagination. Tarsem and his fellow screenwriters- Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis- summarize the film as a love story between a little girl and a broken man.
In my case I’m drawn to how it’s a meeting between childhood and death, particularly the pull of suicide. At first the audience has no idea of what Roy’s intentions are, and throughout the film Alexandria is oblivious to it. She unconditionally loves someone who wants to die and becomes attached to him in such a short period of time. In turn, Roy’s depression keeps him oblivious to that love. He doesn’t see or understand it.
What’s interesting is how Alexandria unknowingly wedges herself between Roy and his objective. He begins to tell her stories, unaware that he is giving her something simple but incredibly beautiful. He settles on a tale of five bandits on a quest for revenge, led by an enigmatic Mystic (Julian Bleach). All of them have been wronged by the evil Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone) and their journey takes them around the world to find him.
Once again I have to point out the casting and character choices here. It’s not every day you hear about a film centering on crew like this: a masked Red Bandit (played by Pace and Emil Hostina), an Indian (Jeetu Verma), the freed slave Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), a demolition expert named Luigi (Robin Smith) and Charles Darwin (Leo Bill). Yes, that Charles Darwin, and accompanied by his beloved pet monkey, Wallace, to boot.
The set-up sounds absurd, and in a way their story is as well, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter. Roy tells Alexandria fragments of the tale in exchange for her assistance, and in her mind they grow and consume her thoughts. Before long she is influencing and changing its course. At times the film suspends its machinations enough to suggest she and Roy are sharing a consciousness, an idea explored in Tarsem’s previous film, The Cell (2000). There are scenes that could only be in Roy’s imagination or Alexandria’s, but they inform one another and overlap as the story progresses.
Regardless of who is imagining things, the visuals are absolutely stunning. The cinematography, production design and inventive costume designs by Eiko Ishioka are unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. The deft editing of Robert Duffy ties so many international locations together you’d never know you’re jumping from one country to the next (or years back and forth in time). All of these pieces fall into place and flawlessly create a dream-like epic.
The tragedy lies in the root of all of this magic. We’re watching a man manipulate a child, which is awful. It gives Roy an undeviating purpose, even as Alexandria brings him friendship, amusement and joy he hasn’t felt since his accident. She asks for more story and he asks for her help, but it will lead to his death. It’s as simple as that.
No matter how many times I watch this, the interactions between the two of them are as sweet as they are heart-breaking. The intimacy isn’t faked since Untaru isn’t acting. In the accompanying DVD materials it’s discussed (and shown) how much she was taken with Pace, stroking his hair and frightened by his acting during a breakdown scene. After seven and a half weeks of pretending he was actually paralyzed, he revealed to Untaru that he could walk. When asked about her reaction Pace said, “She convinced herself that it was her love that had made me be able to walk again. She really did.”
It’s this love that heightens the stakes at the end of the film. The question is whether it’s enough to stop or save someone from dying, especially when it’s all they want. The Fall tackles this idea in an interesting way. Roy is trying to end the story. Alexandria begs him to continue. “It’s my story,” he insists. “Mine too,” she cries.
The point made is that Roy’s absence would be felt, causing a small child incredible pain. Watching him realize this brings the story to a crossroads. Ultimately the choice is his, and we’re left to interpret what he does with that choice.
“We’re a strange pair,” he says. “Aren’t we?”
Watching and reviewing this film couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. It’s one of my favorites, and its effect on me is deeply personal. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and in trying to think of other films that have the effect… well, it’s hard to find anything close. The Fall can’t be replicated, and even when I see its actors in other projects I feel a twinge of pain. It isn’t the same. I recently told a friend that Lee Pace will always be Roy, that perhaps I will always view him like a five-year-old girl.
It’s just one of those things, like a side effect from a strange dream. I shake my head and think to myself, “That’s not Roy.” But it makes me remember The Fall, and I don’t mind that. It’s a wonderful thing.