To what can one compare this film, one of the most magical I've seen in quite a while? Think The Princess Bride meets Moulin Rouge meets The English Patient (at least its better aspects) and you might be halfway there. This unique and enthralling movie—filmed over four years, in twenty-eight countries and at the director’s own expense (because the concept was too crazy to attract a producer)—presents a very simple but moving story at its center, surrounded by a swirling pastiche of visual imagery: audacious costumes, butterflies that morph into islands, a mystical shaman emerges from a burning tree, endless labyrinths and mazes of Escher-esque staircases, a bus-sized wagon propelled by a small army of slaves, a priest’s grinning face and elaborate collar morph into a surrealist desert landscape. And what is more, if the director himself is to be believed, no computer generated effects were used in the film! He apparently has an uncanny gift for finding and exploiting some of the most obscure and overlooked locations for scenes which one would assume could only have been realized through digital sleight of hand, or through the construction of wildly elaborate sets that would give Ben-Hur a run for his money.
Following an opening sequence (effectively accompanied only by the haunting Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony) involving what we, after some puzzlement, discern to be a silent movie set where something has gone terribly wrong, the scene shifts to a Los Angeles hospital, apparently somewhere around 1920. Among the interesting cast of characters which constitute the hospital’s patients, caretakers and other employees are Roy Walker (Lee Pace), the stuntman who has apparently been paralyzed from the waist down in the accident depicted at the beginning, and Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a young child of immigrant orchard workers, who is recovering from a broken arm. Though housed in different parts of the hospital, the two wind up meeting and, in what involves some clever twists on the classic theme, Roy plays Scheherazade to Alexandria’s Shahryar, whiling away their convalescent hours by weaving a tantalizing and epic adventure tale to her enthrallment.
It soon becomes apparent however that there is a dark ulterior motive behind his obvious gift for and enjoyment in storytelling: his desire to gain the girl’s unwitting assistance in his own suicide attempt. Alexandria, however, though teased into compliance by his strung-out fable, proves at once both too naïve and too clever for him. In a moving tribute to the power of narrative, Alexandria begins to insert herself into the story when she senses that Roy is faltering under the weight of his own despair, and, in a subsequent contest of wills, each in turn seeks to steer the plot toward alternately destructive or redemptive ends.
Some other miscellaneous tidbits and sub-themes we are treated to along the way include: Clever visual portrayals of cross-cultural and linguistic misunderstandings (Roy’s intended Native American “Indian” becomes an “Indian” from the subcontinent in Alexandria’s imagining.); A delightful exploration of the very fine line that exists between reality and imagination in the life of a child. (The scary x-ray technicians that Alexandria glimpses in the hospital’s dark corridors clearly inspire the villainous hordes of the fantasy world.); Religious symbolism, much of it specifically Christian, is interwoven here and there—some of it obvious and some of it more subtle. (Why, for instance, one might ask, is a worker shown cutting palm branches from high up in a tree during the initial shot of the hospital?)
For all the delightful excesses lavished upon the film, director Tarsem nonetheless shows remarkable gifts of restraint in this production just where it matters most. Most notably, the decision to keep the running time at just under two hours keeps the magic from souring into a tedious and self-indulgent sensory overload (à la Peter Jackson’s King Kong). And while there is a curse word or two and perhaps just enough violence and brutality to justify the R rating (though I’m sure I’ve seen worse in PG-13 films), there is none of the uber-bizarre, sexualized violence which (apparently—I haven’t seen it) marks his other film of note, The Cell. Lee Pace gives a really great performance, but Untaru’s performance is just splendid, thanks in large part to careful handling by both Tarsem and Pace. (This is illuminated, along with many other fascinating details, in the DVD Commentaries and Special Features, which are also well-worth watching.)
And finally, it has to be observed that the film’s difficulties in finding a distributor (it premiered in 2006 but wasn’t officially released until 2008) just testify once again to the debased cinematic establishment’s commitment to bland, mass-marketability over genuine creative merit. (Brings back to mind Kenneth Branaugh’s still yet-to-be-released The Magic Flute.)
Monday, September 6, 2010
Posted by Abrahamus at 11:47 AM