The camera obscura, Latin for “dark chamber,” is the basic building block of all photography. Light from a well-lit area passes through a small hole, and an image of what’s outside is projected, upside down, on the back wall of a dark area. I have seen a naturally occurring camera obscura one time in my life. A moving image of my children, playing outside in the kiddie pool, was projected with astonishing resolution, color, and clarity on the wall of my bedroom. I’ve never forgotten it.
Considering how foundational the camera obscura is to photography, and to filmmaking, you would think it would have shown up in movies long ago; but I’ve never encountered it in a film, until now. The Fall , the second fiction film by the Indian director Tarsem Singh, who now bills himself by the single name “Tarsem,” has captured this magical occurrence. A four-year-old girl, Alexandria, played by the lovely young actress Catinca Untaru in one of the greatest and most delicately evoked child performances in modern movies, is in the hospital with a broken arm. In her travels around the building, dark and filled with mysteries, she sees, projected through a keyhole, the image of a horse on the wall.
What is the significance of the horse? Horses are, in fact, a motif throughout the film, including a striking, silent, black-and-white opening sequence involving a train, a bridge, and a drowned horse. What do they mean? Maybe nothing. Based on Tarsem’s previous film, The Cell , he clearly loves horses, and perhaps he put them in his new film simply because they are so beautiful.
Some critics have criticized The Fall for exactly that reason. They complain that the film’s story is thin, and that its images are unmotivated, simply a director’s fancy, or folly. But is it folly to bring to the world images that have never been seen before? Such as a man whose back is riddled with one hundred arrows, so that when he falls backwards, he is borne aloft by the shafts as if resting in bed? Or a cluster of dead, red bodies hanging from the ceiling, in the shape of a chandelier, slowly rotating? Or a white sheet, stretching twelve stories high, in the middle of the desert, slowly turning red from the bottom up as the blood of a fallen comrade soaks upwards?
If the images I’ve mentioned sound grisly, I suppose sometimes the film can be that way. The little girl is being told an extemporaneous adventure tale by another patient, a man named Roy, played by Lee Pace. Roy, jilted by his lover, has lost the will to live, and is dreaming of suicide. His own thoughts are dark; it’s no wonder that the images he conjures are tinged with death.
But the key to the film is that his word pictures, which we see acted out, in all their exaggerated, theatrical glory, are filtered through the mind of the little girl. What we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the story the storyteller intends, but rather the one that is received. In other fantasy films, there is no question that the other world has an independent existence, and a child is just a visitor. The Fall is much closer to imagination. Tarsem is reaching for the deepest heart of the cinema: the ability of colorful, moving shadows on the wall to stir deep emotions within us, no explanation needed. Asking all the images to make sense is to miss the point entirely. This is a film of amazement.
“The Fall” is currently playing in an exclusive engagement at the Keystone Art Theater in Indianapolis. Even with the price of gas, it’s worth the trip. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.