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Pure Cinema Alchemy

purecinemaTake ‘The Fall’ and prepare to be spellbound

In big, expensive studio movies, the entire budget may go into a star’s bank account, or noisy special effects, while no-budget independent movies often struggle to make up in integrity what they lack in production values. And then there’s The Fall, the kind of unclassifiable virtuoso performance that happens when a filmmaker has an extraordinary vision and pursues it with relentless drive, focus and imagination, come what may. Part fairy tale, and part coming-of-age drama, it combines stunning visual beauty and a beguiling storyline in a witty and artful homage to both the early days of moviemaking and the power of storytelling itself.

The virtuoso in question is one-named, Indian-born director Tarsem. Having cut his cinematic teeth on award-winning music videos and TV commercials for upscale accounts, he spent 10 years scouting locations during commercial shoots all over the world, followed by four years of actual production (in 18 countries, often at his own expense), to get his second movie made. (His first was the opulent horror thriller The Cell.) (And, yes, Tarsem could use some work on his pedestrian titles.) The result is worth every penny, as well as every minute of time invested— especially ours.

A gripping black-and-white prologue leaves us as intrigued as we are slightly disoriented. Then Tarsem switches to the vivid colors of early orange-crate labels to begin the story at a hacienda-style Los Angeles hospital at the turn of the 20th century. Five-year-old Alexandria (charming little Romanian newcomer Cantinca Untaru), is the child of immigrant orange-pickers who’s broken her arm in a fall. Wandering the halls on her daily rounds, she meets new patient, Roy (Lee Pace), a literal fall guy in the fledgling film business who’s tumbled off a train bridge in a movie stunt gone awry.

Roy is also depressed over losing his faithless girlfriend to the star of the movie. But he befriends Alexandria and tells her a story about her namesake, Alexander the Great. (Interactive, it turns out, when she makes suggestions that alter Roy’s story as it plays out onscreen.) Scheherazade-like, Roy lures the child back to visit him every day by spinning new chapters in an extravagant “epic story” about five heroes—a slave, an Indian, a Cossack, a Masked Bandit, and the naturalist Charles Darwin—who band together on a quest to destroy evil Governor Odious, who has wronged them all.

This thrilling adventure (which Roy makes up as he goes along) provides spectacular counterpoint to the hospital scenes. And Tarsem creates it the old-fashioned way—not in a computer, but shooting live footage on site in locations as diverse as Africa, India, China, the South Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and South America, as the characters traverse desert sands and tropical forests, a terraced city of blue stone and a medieval bridge, a lonely reef and a palace in the middle of a lake. Dozens of dervishes whirl across an immense, intricately patterned parquet floor. An elephant swims majestically under the sea.

As clever as the epic story itself is the fanciful way Tarsem unspools it from the viewpoint of little Alexandria, its audience. When Roy, who works in cowboy movies, invents an “Indian,” the child envisions a man in a turban with a scimitar. She also casts hospital personnel, patients and delivery people as characters in the story. Roy  bases his Masked Bandit on a photo of Alexandria’s deceased father, but the little girl persistently envisions the leader of the heroes as Roy himself. Meanwhile, the give-and-take between them in their “real” life in the hospital gives the movie resonance and heart, even as their friendship takes a darker, more menacing turn. That the epic too darkens speaks to the way we use stories to exorcise, or embrace our demons.

Tarsem’s visual language is extremely sophisticated; every seemingly random image adds up to something by film’s end. He also coaxes a marvelous onscreen chemistry out of soft-spoken, wistfully charismatic Pace and delightful little Untaru; their dialogue sounds completely spontaneous, their relationship is irresistible. The Fall is pure cinema alchemy. Dive in and prepare to be ravished.

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