Saturday, November 25, 2006


FEARLESS (1993, USA, Peter Wier, screenplay Rafael Yglesias)
We used to live in tribes, and when a tribe suffered a disaster – an exploding mountain, the shaking of the earth, a great flood – they would sit around fires and retell the event. Stories of death, desturction, escape, and rescue. That's why we're here today. Would someone tell us their story?

FEARLESS is a film about rebirth, about a man untimely ripp'd from imminent death who finds himself fully alive for the first time. "Behold, all things are become new" – the look and feel of water flowing through his hands, the texture of spittle mixed with dust, the taste of a strawberry. In the midst of a horrific airplane crash Max Klein has discovered an uncanny peace, and now he can't return to his old life, won't take up his responsibilities as a successful architect, as a husband and father. He flees the jangle of media questions that cast him as a fearless hero who saved fellow passengers – "Follow me to the light!" – but he flees them not because they're probably making him out to be something he's not, but because they've maybe got it right. His former fears are gone, his old vulnerabilities are gone, the only fear that remains is the fear of losing his grip on this dazzling new life. (Notice the sudden and significant moments of panic in Max's sea of calm, the flashes of light, the testing of fears.) "Old things are passed away" – even, it seems, his love for his wife and son. And because he discovers in this reborn life a terrible aversion to speaking anything but raw, unprocessed truth, Max refuses to hide his alienation, and their marriage begins to die an untimely death.

Rafael Yglesias, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, never allows this bemusing, conflicting story to stop puzzling us. Neither is Weir interested in explaining things away, in solving Mysteries, so we are kept in a state of suspension from beginning to end. We can't help but respond to this glorious experience of new life, yet we can't let go of the sense that there's something wrong here. We are never allowed to easily settle for this new life, to agree that it must replace the old. Isabella Rossellini plays Max's virtually widowed wife, a marvel of casting and performance: she is gorgeous, tough, vulnerable, a truth-speaker in her own right and the wisest person in the film, who will fight to get her husband back, but only so far. We cannot understand how he could be so disinterested in her, how he can go on damaging her with his prodigal (misplaced?) love and his thoughtless truths?

Rossellini is magnificent. Watch what she goes through in the course of a single scene when Carla – a fellow crash survivor who's become the centre of Max's new life – appears at her door. "I thought we should talk." Rosie Perez earned an Oscar nom for the reckless abandon of a raging grief that's sometimes surprised by joy, but it's Roberto and Ingrid's little girl who astonishes with an understated virtuosity that eluded the trophy mongers. (Ain't it the way....) Jeff Bridges has never been better than in this portrayal of a cipher of a man both alive and dead, balancing an eerily detached calm with a curious sense of wonder and engagement. From moment to moment, we're unsure whether Max is lost or saved, narcissist or saviour, deluded or divine.

Our perceptions constantly shift between the glory of Max's liberty, a vital engagement with life ready to pour himself out for the almost-lost Carla – heck, I want some of what he's got! – and the horror of his agonizing indifference to this glorious woman and confused son who love him. (Actually, I feel like I do have some of what he's got, for better and for worse: the film bears uncanny similarities to the early days of my own conversion, when the glories of new life in Christ distracted me from the old, when truth-telling and self-sacrifice became obsessions, and friends and family struggled to accept these sudden other-worldly changes, and I struggled to understand their reservations. Even now, decades later, I see in Max my own tensions between living in the world and living in the Kingdom of God. Must I really hate father and mother, abandon home and family?)

Klein's actions, indeed his state of being – are as inscrutable to us as they apparently are to himself. Is he some sort of messiah, a healer, a saviour? He's got the wounds, the followers, and he drinks the deadly thing and it does not hurt him. Or is he in some liberating, destructive sort of denial, a post-traumatic shock that deadens him to his old life while opening up a new? Has he been touched by God, or is he playing god? Winsomely selfless, or alarmingly selfish? Is he invulnerable to life's hurts, or does he only think he is? Can he – should he – save Carla, if it means he may lose his marriage, his home, his family? And what about those of us who taste new life? What sort of sacrifices might we be called on to make, what risks to take? When is it that voice the voice of Yahweh on Moriah, and when is it someother mountaintop voice, out in the wilderness, saying "Cast yourself down..."? When an angel comes from God, the first words out of his mouth are likely to be something along the lines of "Fear not" – but sometimes devils come as angels of light, don't they.

In the first and most interesting phase of his career, director Peter Weir was obsessed with ordinary westerners suddently confronted with spiritual realities beyond their well-ordered worldviews – pragmatic, career-oriented, pretty-much-materialist Horatios contronted with undeniable evidence that there's more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in their philosophies; the survivors of that fateful PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, David Burton in THE LAST WAVE, Guy Hamilton in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. Once Weir moved to America that preoccupation faded into the background as budgets got bigger and Hollywood did what Hollywood does, though we still see colliding realities with spiritual fallout in later pieces like WITNESS and THE TRUMAN SHOW. FEARLESS is the one American Weir that returns undeniably to his native land – not Australia, but rather that liminal place between earth and heaven where ordinary people are torn between old and new, immanent and transcendent, between what is human and what is Other. If all of Weir is about strangers in strange lands, then this is the one where a man visits the undiscovered country, "from whose bourne no traveller returns."

There are so many things to love, or at least appreciate, in this dense and complex movie – only its story-line is straightforward and uncluttered, to allow room for nuance and resonance of theme and image, choice and consequence. The glories of the common, everyday, sensual, physical world that coinhere with a strange spiritual transcendence. That masterful opening, mystical and disorienting – what is it about cornfields! Mothers who get their babies back, mothers who don't: women who want to be wives, boys who want to be sons. The juxtapositions of noise and silence – notice how selective Weir is with sound effects, what we hear and what we do not. Shadows on screens that remind us of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, suggesting spiritual realities that hover just the other side of a paper-thin wall, lit from Somewhere Else. Moments of slow motion, flashes of light, flame, tunnels leading to light or darkness, life or death. The transcendent earthiness of Hieronymous Bosch and Rene Magritte and Andy Goldsworthy, all staring at the brink of the Unknown, the apt as can be music of the Gypsey Kings and Henrik Gorecki and U2.

For all its artistic strengths, whether the film ultimately succeeds or fails with individual viewers may have everything to do with how much they see themselves in its central character. Is Max's experience strange or familiar? Is he invigorated and invigorating, engaged and engaging, or is he alienated and alienating? He curses God, he acknowledges God, he plays God. This is a man who will do whatever desperate thing he must do to hold on to this ecstatic new life: if he loses it, he loses everything. Is that supremely selfish, or sublimely self-transcending? Is he gaining his life or losing it, or both? Is the kingdom of heaven really like that? Do you have to seize it by force? What must we sacrifice to find it, to keep it? Is Max a dead man, a ghost? Or newborn, truly alive for the first time? Or is he just not dead? Is Rosie's God dead, or listening, or incapable of answering her prayers? Or does He come through in the end? Who's her best friend, Jesus or Max or neither or both of the above?

This many ambiguities and ambivalences mark a film that's great to talk about (argue about), and the richness of its artistry provides plenty of detail to stimulate conversation. To some, Max will seem a monster, to others a mortally wounded man in a particularly virulent strain of denial – for them, FEARLESS runs the risk of being a story without a likeable character at its centre. We may admire such films, but we do not love them: instead of entering into the movie's world in the vicarious shoes of a protagonist who is at least a bit like us, we stand outside and observe. But to others, Max is a man caught between two worlds, a man faced with the terrible quandary of holding on to one Good so tightly that he risks losing another. Those who see themselves torn in that kind of spiritual "Sophie's Choice" of the spirit may find this one of those movies of a lifetime, that tells a rarely-told tale they're hungry to hear.


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