If buzz were really a measure of a movie’s merits, The Fall would be unwatchable. Seldom has a less heralded film limped its way into theaters. From its premiere at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, it took director Tarsem Singh’s film nearly two years to get a limited release in the U.S. Reviews have been mixed, and understandably so: The Fall has flaws. But it’s also a true spectacle, the type of movie that rewards a trip to watch it on the big screen.
In last winter’s The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman “visited” an array of exotic locales through the magic of greenscreen technology. If that’s the future, The Fall is the past, and Tarsem — the director no longer uses his surname professionally — knows it well. In a recent interview with The Orlando Sentinel, the man who made his fortune in sleek commercial shorts — he did REM’s “Losing My Religion” video — called his creation “a swan song for . . . old-fashioned filmmaking . . . the last piece of real eye candy.” Tarsem brought his actors on a whirlwind tour of locations ranging from India’s Taj Mahal and Agra Fort to the Andaman Islands to Bali to Namibia. When you see a stunning red ridge rising above blinding white desert, they’re really there, though it may recall a tableau from 300. The “blue city” of Jodhpur, India, may look like something created in post-production, too, but its ranks of azure-painted houses exist.
The excuse for this sumptuous travelogue is a plot Tarsem pinched from a little-known — here, anyway — 1981 Russian film called Yo Ho Ho. In his version, set in 1920 Los Angeles, a small immigrant named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), hospitalized with a broken arm, meets Roy (Lee Pace), a young stuntman whose tumble from a bridge has left him paraplegic. Sensing the girl’s thirst for entertainment, Roy launches into a fantastical, fractured story of five globe-trotting bandits with a vendetta against the evil Governor Odious. But Alexandria is no passive listener, and the narrative takes U-turns as she expresses her feelings about what should happen next.
Given this meta-fictional setup and the swashbuckling silliness of the story-within-the-story, some critics have compared The Fall to The Princess Bride. But its tone is much closer to Pan’s Labyrinth. Though fresh and impressionable, Alexandria — who’s been working in the orange groves — is far from innocent of suffering. Roy’s motives aren’t innocent, either. Disappointed in love and realizing he’ll never walk again, he badgers the girl to snitch him a full bottle of morphine in exchange for closure on the story. If Scheherazade spun tales to extend her life, he has the opposite goal in mind.
It’s an exceptionally cruel conceit for such a whimsical film, yet the combination works. As we watch the man and the child build a convincing, almost familial rapport — Alexandria has lost her young father — we know Roy plans to make her the instrument of a betrayal that will devastate her. Pace has a laid-back, faintly Southern charm that gives this knowledge real sting; he’s a personable narrator and a striking hero in the fantasy sequences. But the movie never figures out how to get around — or justify, or redeem — his character’s selfishness, perhaps because it stays almost exclusively in Alexandria’s perspective. Like most kids, she doesn’t care how this adult got so sad: She just wants him to buck up and defeat the bad guys.
Untaru is a young Romanian — 8 or 9 when she played the part — who has the cherubic face of the Pepsi Girl and seems to be reacting more than acting. That’s a mixed bag: She stumbles over some of her lines as if she’d learned them phonetically, yet nothing feels fake or tutored about her fidgety body language, her indignation or her pain. With a more polished American child actor, the movie could have been a saccharine crowd-pleaser about the power of storytelling. What Tarsem created instead is darker and more disjointed, but you’re not likely to see its like again.