See This or Die: Tarsem’s ‘The Fall’

Our weekly feature in which a writer answers the question: If you could force your friends at gunpoint to watch one movie or TV show, what would it be?

Released in 2006, Tarsem”s “The Fall” is a gorgeous celebration of storytelling that reveals how stories touch and change the people they are told to and those who tell them.

It”s an ode to the very specific mode of storytelling of film. A few minutes into 1915-set “The Fall,” a character played by a pre-stardom Lee Pace attempts to explain to a five-year-old girl, “Pictures, y”know, flickers: moving pictures.” The girl, Alexandria, responds, confused, that she”s never seen one. With a hint of a sly smile, Pace”s Roy replies, “Oh you”re not missing much” – a line that strikes with irony, considering Tarsem”s clear passion for filmmaking and the fact that were “The Fall” to go unwatched, movie-lovers would be missing quite a lot.

I take any opportunity I can to make sure friends (and now you, dear readers) don”t miss out on this charming film that dazzles the senses. Last week I showed “The Fall” to a friend (fortunately, he watched it without being forced to at gunpoint), and he texted me today, “I can”t get ‘The Fall” out of my head.”

“Visually stunning” is the first description that comes to mind when describing “The Fall,” but though Tarsem”s masterpiece presents a breathtaking collection of images that stick in your head, it is more than just material that would make a good coffee table book.

The exquisite visuals in the fantastical world of “The Fall” make up one of the film”s two storylines:

Story A: In a hospital in Los Angeles circa 1915, Alexandria is recovering from a fall that has broken her arm. There she meets Roy, a patient also hospitalized after a fall, one that has left him possibly paraplegic, and broken in other ways.

Story B: The visually dazzling story that Roy tells young Alexandria, an epic tale of five heroes on a vengeful quest to defeat their rival, Governor Odious.

While the audience watches Roy”s story blossom in Alexandria”s imagination, his motivations for telling this story become more apparent, as do the parallels between the story and his life, leading to their convergence in the movie”s dramatic climax.

“The Fall” started its film festival circuit in Toronto in 2006 and had a limited U.S. release in 2008. It is the second feature film of director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (known professionally as Tarsem). It”s a passion project that he funded himself with savings built up from a career of directing commercials and music videos (such as R.E.M.”s “Losing My Religion.”) Piggybacking on commercial assignments around the world, Tarsem filmed “The Fall” in 18 different countries – including much of his native India. (Check out the picture below of Chand Baori, the stepwell also used in “The Dark Knight Rises.”) The diverse palette of remarkable locations provide the backdrop for Roy”s epic tale. I wish Tarsem would do more work like this: visually stunning but organically so, and thus without the need for excessive digital effects. Tarsem followed up “The Fall” by partnering with the producers of “300” for 2011″s CGI-tastic “Immortals.”

In “The Fall,” real locations from India to Fiji to Namibia to Bolivia to Prague are the settings for a host of visual gems: a leafless, lone tree in a valley bursting into flames just before a man emerges from its trunk; our five heroes gathered in front of the Taj Mahal, clad in bold, primary colors (costumes by the uniquely talented, late Eiko Ishioka); a grand elephant swimming through a coral reef; whirling dervishes spinning in slow motion around a wedding party in an ornate Indian palace; a Roman soldier riding on a grey horse through a vast, orange desert.

Though this eye candy feast might sound like an instance of style over substance, it”s actually intense style that supports the substance. The spectacle of Roy”s story is easily first mentioned when describing “The Fall,” but the hospital scenes are by no means secondary. You are never waiting for a hospital scene to be over so you can see pretty India again. Pace and Catinca Untaru, who plays Alexandria, are an absolute delight to watch as their characters grow closer, displaying a fictional friendship that paralleled the developing real friendship of the actors. Tarsem shot the hospital scenes in sequence, and that was a smart move. Untaru – and thus, Alexandria – initially didn”t want to move to Pace any closer than the door of his hospital room, but as the film progresses, she comes to sit in a chair at his bedside and then on his bed.

Especially affecting is the contrast between the heightened performances of the five heroes and the raw, authentic performances of Pace and Untaru in the hospital scenes. Non-actress, Romania-native, (initially) non-English speaking Untaru was a wonderful find. Tarsem feared that she”d develop a polished Shirley Temple style of acting, but her performance remained rooted in reality – this is partially thanks to Tarsem”s openness to let Untaru and Pace ad-lib much of their scenes and also thanks to the director”s demanding method request of his lead actor: Tarsem had Pace spend all his time on the set of hospital scenes in a wheelchair or his hospital bed, fooling Untaru and the rest of the cast and crew into believing that he truly could not walk. At the time, Pace could deceive everyone since he wasn”t yet a recognizable, Emmy-nominated, franchise-hopping actor – when “The Fall” was shot, his one screen credit was Showtime TV movie “Soldier”s Girl,” when he”d played a transsexual night-club performer.

The most impressive display of Untaru”s and Pace”s acting abilities is in the heart-wrenching, emotionally-charged climax, as Roy completes his story for Alexandria but struggles to choose what type of ending it will have. The choices of the hero of the Masked Bandit (also played by Pace) become intertwined with choices Roy needs to make in his real life, and it becomes clear what an impact the broken man and the fallen girl have made on each other's lives.

For all the intensity of this climax, the film is never lacking in small, sweetly comedic moments in both storylines and when they blend together. At one suspenseful moment in Roy”s tale when the five heroes are on horseback galloping across a desert, the Masked Bandit turns to face the camera and yells dramatically, “Tell me, Alexandria, do you read English?” In cuts a shot of Alexandria, mesmerized, then frustrated as she says, “You always stop at the same part, when it”s very beautiful… and interesting.”

And indeed, Alexandria”s words also describe “The Fall”: a beautiful story and piece of art that captures the interest of its viewers, as they each hope that this ride of a film never stops.

“The Fall” is available to watch on Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, VUDU, iTunes and on DVD and Blu-ray.