..

FARAWAY, SO CLOSE!

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Otto Sander, Peter Falk, Horst Burchholz, Bruno Ganz, Nastassja Kinski, Willem Dafoe
Director:  Wim Wenders
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Commentary Track, Trailers, Talent Files
Length:  146 Minutes
Release Date:  September 12, 2000

Film **

Like the title itself, Faraway, So Close! is a film that attempts to bring opposing aspects and ideas under one blanket.  Most notably is the concept of trying to unify secular and humanistic points of view, but beyond that, the picture is also a stylistic hodgepodge, mixing black and white with color, actors in fictional roles with actors playing themselves, actors appearing in flashback form as fathers and mothers of their modern day characters, and finally, jumbling English and German languages together, mostly in mid-conversation.  The result is a film with many ideas, but little focus; one that tries to find a voice and purpose through chance and optimism, but never really stumbles across any.

I never saw director Wim Wendersí film Wings of Desire, and as such, I had no idea this picture was a continuation of that one until he mentioned it in the commentary track.  That would explain some of my initial confusion.  In Wings of Desire, he introduced two angels, Cassiel (Sander) and Damiel (Ganz).  At the end of the story, Damiel became human, Cassiel did not.  This movie picks up with them in unified Berlin, where Damiel lives like a man and has a family, and Cassiel still watches humanity with an ever inquisitive eye.

In Wendersí film, angels observe humans, but canít directly interfere.  Sometimes, their presence can be felt like words coming from the heart, or when a person is dying, and an angel is there to comfort them and guide them into the great beyond.  They are immortal, and as such, have no concept of time.  Cassielís story in the movie actually goes back to World War II, where he witnessed half of a family escaping from the Nazis.  As fate would have it, he would get to play an active part in helping the other half escape from a crime organization in modern times.

One common link with just about all films that deal with angels is how much they supposedly want to be one of us, and how willing they are to trade immortality and knowledge for the ability to feel pain, sorrow and death.  Here, Wenders emphasizes this point by showing us the world through the angelsí eyes in black and white.  Only human point of view shots switch to color. 

Cassiel does become human, only to find that life is not as easy as he hoped.  With no money, identification or background, heís nothing more than a street person, and is ripe for the temptations of the world, which are gladly provided by the devilish Emit (Dafoe).  He succumbs to despair, and to drink, and eventually nearly falls in with a black market underworld of guns and adult movies.

But time for human beings is finite, a concept Cassiel is slowly getting used to.  He became human because he wanted to do good, but finds that doing good takes a lot more than will.  Like any mortal, redemption becomes a defining issue, and Cassiel eventually proves himself ready to seek and receive it.

I wanted very much to like this film more than I did.  Technically, itís quite a marvel, with styles owing to both Robert Altman and Ingmar Bergman.  It has a great look and feel to it, particularly in the way the camera seems to defy gravity along with the flights of the characters.  But by the time the picture was over, I had to conclude that it was merely an experiment with nothing to say.  It plays out like trying to find the answers to a string of Ďwhat ifí questions:  what if we could see the new Berlin through the eyes of angels?  What if angels who became human could become just as lost as the rest of us?  What if you went from observer to participant in the lives youíve watched?  What if the concept of time became real to someone for whom it never existed?  And the film eagerly explores each question, but in such a way that draws no real conclusions. 

As mentioned, the occasional playfulness of having actors playing themselves in the story (Peter Falk, Lou Reed, and Mikhail Gorbachev) adds to the muddling of the message.  None of them adds anything to the story, so what was the point?  In the commentary track, Wenders mentions that Gorbachev became available to him for two hours, where he improvised a few lines for the camera, and then left the picture.  Does this sound like the product of a focused filmmaker?  I also didnít care for the fact that German and English were interchangeably used, even in straight dialogues between two characters.  Sometimes the same sentence would begin in one language and end in the other.  I donít know if this is realistic as far as conversation in Germany goes, but here, itís a major distraction to the ear, and quite possibly the harbinger of a headache.

The best singular aspect is the work of Otto Sander as Cassiel.  His performance is strong, emotional, and fully realized.  He helps the audience to see the beauty of our world through the eyes of an angel, and later, the despair and pain we tend to bring upon ourselves.  He makes for a solid protagonist that helps lead the viewers through the muddled tendencies of the film.

And the film has some good moments.  The scene where Cassiel in human form speaks to the now aged chauffeur who drove the getaway car in the World War II flashback and helps him remember the goodness of his life is a beautiful one, and extremely moving.  The family moments are also real and loving, and demonstrate in subtle ways humanity at its best.  Itís just a shame that scenes like these couldnít connect themselves to something more substantial.

Video ***1/2

This is a beautiful transfer from Columbia Tri Star, one that is able to boast near perfection as both a color and a black and white film.  The black and white segments are crisp, sharp and clear, with good contrast levels and a full, distinct grayscale range, and come across with no noticeable grain or break-up.  The color segments are vivid and natural looking with no bleeding or compression artifacts save a tiny bit of grain in a few of the low light segments, particularly on the darkest images in them.  The print used in the transfer is clean and virtually free from spots, dirt and other debris.  Consider this yet another quality DVD entry from CST.

Audio ***

Though only offering a Dolby 2-channel surround, I found the audio highly satisfactory.  The front stereo stage contains a wide spread for the dialogue, though audio panning doesnít come across QUITE as fluid as it might have with a center channel.  The rears come into play a little more than many standard surround tracks, with musical cues and intermittent sound effects that serve the story well.  The dynamic range is about medium, but the nature of the picture doesnít really require any more than that.  The sound is very clean and noise free, and dialogue comes across well (not counting the language jumbling).  Plus, the movie features a terrific song score, with artists such as U2, Lou Reed, Nick Cave and others participating.  Overall, a quality, serviceable audio track.

Features **1/2

The disc contains a commentary track with Wim Wenders, which is a resource youíll probably need if you care enough to try going back and sorting through everything.  This is a perfect commentary track to go with a foreign film, too, because Wenders speaks a lot about the actors we might not be familiar with, as well as the cultural background of post-Cold War Berlin, which helps bring some of the picture into perspective.  His English is very good, and his speaking style is relaxed and comfortable, with great care towards expressing his thoughts and feelings.  The disc also contains three trailers, and although the box lists production notes, it actually has talent files on Wenders and his lead actors instead.

One troublesome aspect, however, is the subtitles.  Despite the fact that the dialogue is mostly German, the subtitles donít default on.  And when you choose them, you get subtitles all the way, for both English and German speech.  This is something that could have, and should have, been done a lot better.

Summary:

Faraway, So Close! is an ambitious, big hearted experiment that delves into eternal issues and surfaces with nothing much to say about them.  Despite a terrific cast and some good moments, the picture is too heavy on jumbled ideas and too light on coherency to really succeed.