'Faraway, So Close' examines the traffic between heaven and Earth

February 11, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Faraway, So Close"

Starring Otto Sander and Nastassja Kinski

Directed by Wim Wenders

Released by Sony Classics

PG-13 rated

***

5/8 The most famous fallen angel of them all, Lucifer, lost his position in heaven out of the most human of sins, pride.

Surely it is the central irony of Wim Wenders' dazzling "Faraway, So Close" that his angel, Cassiel, loses his place for the most angelic of virtues: compassion.

Cassiel, played by Otto Sander, has a face that radiates that value like a defective radiator issuing vapors. His eyes tear up, he swallows and his skin seems to furrow in anticipation of tragedy or blossom in the possibility of joy. Sander owns one of the great movie mugs of all time: He could out-duel the great Buster Keaton in any they-had-faces-then contest. His eyes aren't the mirror of his soul, he's all soul.

"Faraway, So Close" is therefore an account of an ordeal by compassion. It watches as this most lovelorn and empathy-crazed of all moral beings falls to Earth and tries to put into practical application that which is so theoretically appealing to him. For his efforts, he is squashed, crushed, spit upon, corrupted and deceived. Welcome to Earth, chum!

The film, which opens today at the Senator for a week, is a sequel to and amplification of Wenders' 1988 hit "Wings of Desire," and indeed "Wings'" star, Bruno Ganz, is a minor character in this one. But the movie's really about Cassiel, who was in his turn a minor player in that one.

The central conceit is the same: a race of angels that is faraway so close, watching us humans and puzzling over our venality and anger. Wenders represents angel-reality by rendering it in soft .. black and white as photographed through a gently fluid camera. The view is always celestial: Wenders loves to place his heavenly chorus -- besides Sander, the beautiful Nastassja Kinski, who would look ethereal in a bus station men's room, is a key figure -- high above the petty scurryings of our tainted race. Simply on the strength of the morphic resonance of such imagery -- becalmed and majestic, sagacious and concerned, wings at full extension, they perch atop Victory columns or other historic structures in battered old Berlin and observe the goings on -- the film acquires a beguiling sensibility. The movie may not tell you how many angels fit on the head of a pin, but it has the answer as to how many can light on the Brandenberg Gate.

Wenders defines the milieu precisely: The angels can hear the thoughts of mankind and can make provisional contact, through dreams or at deathbeds. They can attempt to offer guidance, usually thwarted or ignored, but mainly they simply observe and discourse among themselves on moral issues with philosophical fervor. It is a constant puzzle to them: Why are people so bad? Why do they always do the wrong thing? It baffles them that they cannot feel what people feel.

Passage between realities is possible: That's what happened to Ganz in the first film, and that's what happens to Sander in this one. He intercedes to save a life, and once having done so, he becomes human. Wenders portrays human reality as much more vivid and confusing, swarming with color and temptation. Suddenly Cassiel gets it: the bite of lust, the heat of anger, the chill of the cold, the fear of death, all conditions excluded from his view previously.

He tries to move on his angel's knowledge to intercede in various budding catastrophes even as he tries to get his Earth legs under him. But he makes a clumsy human being and his intercessions almost always leave things more muddled than they were before. And there's plenty to muddle: The plot is perhaps the film's weakest element. It's one of those weird congruences, treachery and love, that might have been hatched by a Thomas Pynchon or a Kurt Vonnegut, involving the long-lost (to each other) son and daughter of a Nazi propagandist, their old chauffeur, a new gangster, a shipment of arms and pornographic tapes, Peter Falk pretending to be Columbo, and so forth and so on.

The movie is elaborately worked out so that Cassiel must deal with the actual cost of doing good works in a cruel world. Wenders goes even further: he places the site of his heroism in a bungee jumper's harness so that, aping the angel he once was, Cassiel must swoop out of the heights and rescue a victim. Having done so, he bounces back and forth in the vertical plane, plainly vulnerable to the cruelties of man and the indifference of God. He is literally between heaven and Earth.

So give Wenders credit for this one other grace note: He's the first to see the symbolic possibilities of bungee cord.

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