The last film I saw from a film-maker based in India (Mira Nair's fine The Namesake) has in it the line from Dostoevsky: "We all come out from Gogol's 'Overcoat.'"
Well, I'm beginning to think all motley-groups of adventurers with different skills that come in handy at particular junctures spring from The Wizard Of Oz-even the Seven Samurai and their progeny.
Think of it: Dorothy in her concussed fever-dream comes across familiars who all want, but seemingly don't possess, the very qualities that Dorothy finds wanting in an unfair world (and probably herself)--brains, heart and courage--only to tell herself in her unconsciousness that her guardians/charges/friends possessed them all along (as, she must conclude, did she). Only then, can she return to the harsh reality from which she escaped, emboldened by her new confidence, and new eyes to see her world anew as one of hope, rather than despair.
Now, here is Tersem Singh Dhandwar's (he's become mono-named ala Liberace and Prince to just "Tarsem") 2006 film (just making it now to theaters, after caroming through the international film festival circuit) of The Fall, and it's a fascinating little de-construction of the Wizard of Oz template, and quite a successful "Tell me a Story" film in that same regard, as the fantasy within the film frames the reality that creates it.
It takes place in a Los Angeles hospital ("a long time ago" reads the caption to put the audience in the proper frame of mind), and a young immigrant girl, Alexandria, whose Indian family subsists on picking fruit, is in the hospital, recovering from a fractured left arm. Her condition and curious personality allow her the luxury of having the run of the place, and in her attempt to send a note to her favorite nurse, she crosses paths with a film-stuntman, recovering from a stunt/suicide attempt because his girl had been stolen by the film's leading man.
The two form a bond of need. She befriends him, and visits him daily for friendship and for the story that he weaves of a band of adventurers, each with their own distinctive skill-set, who, together and separately, are on a quest for revenge. He's still depressed, and uses the girl's visits and her hospital access for reasons that have nothing to do with friendship. It's a combination of high fantasy and high drama, which cannot exist together. The quest is fantastical and its melodrama (derived from silent movies) masks the very real pain of the story-teller while also reflecting it, as with Oz. When the two collide it makes for the most uncomfortable part of the film, which goes on a bit too long, and shifts the film into cruelty, but it's only a slight misstep on the way to a satisfying denouement.
The narrative works well--so well that it is almost overwhelmed by Tarsem (who directed The Cell and some mind-blowing music-video's) and his spectacular visual sense, with locations cherry-picked from 17 countries (although one suspects most of those are in one dizzying 30-second sequence) accomplished over a couple of years, incredibly enough, without the aid of digital graphics--merely the hyper-imagination and design-sense of its director. But those images stay with you for days and linger, whether they are in the out-there fantasy realm, or the way Singh shoots the drab hospital environment--his unique eye never fails to enchant.
The performances are low-key, although one has to acknowledge the actress who plays Alexandria--five years old, and with English not her native language, she learned the dialogue phonetically, even though the performance seems, at times, to be made up on the spot. Credit Tarsem for the way that Cantica Untaru plays her scenes, but also the young actress, who is this film's Dorothy and for whom the audience's heart is lifted over the rainbow.
Fortunately,there are still some film-makers out there that can use the old tools of film-making in new ways to find some way of communicating beyond the photo-realistic, and create the feeling of "the new" and make you see with fresh eyes.