At one point in Indian director Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, a question is brought up: what is an epic?
Although just shy of two hours in length, The Fall itself is without a doubt an epic in the true sense of the word, meaning a grand-scale story about heroism and adventure.
It is hard to describe the ambitious scope of this film; you have to see it for yourself.
A pet project of Singh’s, who worked for 17 years filming commercials and music videos to save up the funding for the project, the filming of this movie took place over four years, almost two-dozen countries and several continents. If that isn’t epic, we don’t know what is. But let’s get to the story first before delving into that.
Like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, the film uses a framing device of a story set in the real world to tell a story about a fantastical world, where the narrative goes back and forth between each.
The film begins in 1915, in a hospital in Los Angeles, where Alexandria, a little girl with a broken arm (Catinca Untaru), befriends a fellow patient, a stuntman named Roy (Lee Pace).
Badly injured and paralyzed from a dangerous stunt gone wrong, Roy is washed up, depressed, addicted to morphine and suicidal. As the two bond and form an unlikely friendship, Roy begins to tell her a story of his own invention about a swashbuckling group of heroes, which captivates her.
Not realizing that Roy is saving up his pain medication with the intention of committing suicide, she delivers morphine to him from the dispensary and returns every day to hear the next installment of the story, a kind of inverted One Thousand and One Nights plot.
The film makes heavy use of improvised dialogue and method acting: Untaru could not speak English before making the film, and Pace spent most of the shoot in his hospital bed, convincing many of the crew he really was paraplegic.
The film was also shot sequentially, adding to the realism of their performances as the actors began to know each other along with their characters.
In the fantasy world dreamed up by Roy, he is a masked bandit who seeks revenge for the death of his brother and is followed by a band of adventurers who all share a common grudge against the evil Lord Odious.
Among this ragtag bunch of misfits are an Indian swordsman, an Italian grenadier, an escaped slave, a aboriginal shaman and a young, beardless Charles Darwin (yes, really).
Having been exiled by Odious to a desert island, they set out on a quest to find and kill the man who wronged each of them.
Although Alexandria is too naïve to realize it due to her young age, it soon becomes apparent that Roy’s fictional story is really an outlet for his own internal conflicts and his feelings about the other people in his life including the fiancée who left him because of his injury, a fellow actor he despises and his insufferable fellow patients (including an overly dramatic hypochondriac with a vindictive streak).
Over the course of their journey, the heroes face hordes of Odious’ black knights and survive by their own cunning and skill, motivated by justice and a desire for revenge.
They travel through countless dazzling landscapes including deserts, forests and ancient ruins from all over the world.
Singh’s native India provides much of the setting (including many shots of landmarks such as the Taj Mahal) as well as Spain, Indonesia and many others.
Amazingly, there is no computer-generated imagery in the whole movie; everything we see in the movie was done with practical effects. All of the palaces and ancient cities portrayed in the film are real places, including a town in India that is entirely painted blue, a massive reservoir full of winding stairs and an Escher-like labyrinth of stone towers.
Singh’s devotion to his craft and his creative use of camera trickery is what elevates this film from a mere adventure story to one that will stir your sense of wonder.
Over the course of the film, the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred as Alexandria takes part in the story as well, playing the masked bandit’s daughter, as Roy becomes a surrogate father to her.
His narration becomes unreliable and prone to retcons as he is forced to admit some uncomfortable truths about himself to her.
The scenes between the two in the hospital are not filler either; we see that both have tragedy in their backstories, which is what allows them to form such a strong connection.
The film is prone to meta-levels of awareness as well; there is some light-hearted mocking of the film industry and film itself as well as respectful homage to the adventure and fantasy genres.
It becomes clear that Singh himself knows film on a deeper level than many better-known directors. Despite this, the film got mixed reviews from critics despite a screening at TIFF and a four-star rating from Roger Ebert.
Trent Film Society is showing Tarsem Singh’s The Fall at Artspace on March 30, at 8p.m. As always, admission is free.