MOVIE REVIEW : 'Faraway, So Close': Wim Wenders' Spiritual Odyssey

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the shimmering, elegiac "Faraway, So Close" (selected theaters), Wim Wenders continues the magnificent spiritual odyssey he commenced six years ago with "Wings of Desire." It was so fortuitous that Wenders introduced in the first film two angels, both eager to become human and each worthy of his own story, that you have to wonder whether he didn't have the possibility of a sequel in mind at the outset. The film's title refers to its angels' ability to be close to humans without being visible to them or being able to affect their destinies.

In any event, the reunification of Germany that occurred in between the two films is the clear source of the inspiration for "Faraway, So Close" On the most profound of its many levels it can be taken as an allegory on the coming together of the two Germanys and the sacrifice involved in accomplishing it. It even features Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the former Soviet president, pondering the meaning of life.

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A meditation on what it means to be alive today, and in Germany specifically, "Faraway, So Close" seems a considerably more complex film than "Wings of Desire." Wenders has so much to express through such a complicated, heavily populated plot that his film can be wearying in its leisurely pacing, despite the constant awesome beauty of its images and miraculous use of sound.

Wenders' ideas, emotions--and his characters--eventually do converge in a stately manner, rewarding the patient with a stunning, enlarging vision of human experience, a melding of the material and spiritual worlds. "Faraway, So Close" can be very tough going in its first half, but given its overall scope, passion and brilliance it is arguably a great film all the same.

Those who've seen "Wings of Desire" will recall that it concerned the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz), who falls in love with Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a beautiful trapeze artist, and who craves to become human. This time it's his fellow angel, Cassiel (Otto Sander) who has the urge. But Cassiel is considerably more reluctant, and he finally becomes human only in order to catch a child (Aline Krajewski) falling off an apartment balcony. Whereas Damiel and Marion seem to be living happily ever after, Cassiel, who now calls himself Karl Engel, discovers how tough it can be to be human; very swiftly he plunges from elation to despair, drowning his poverty and loneliness in drink.

Karl's progress toward redemption, his determination to learn how humans see and hear, will serve to connect many different people who in turn represent a cross-section of modern Germany. The mother of the child Karl saves, Hanna (Monika Hansen), and their unofficial guardian, the elderly Konrad (Heinz Ruhmann), once Hanna's family's chauffeur, are sought by a seedy private eye (Rudiger Vogler, star of Wenders' early films "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick," "Kings of the Road" and "Alice of the Cities").

He is in the hire of a brash, breezy and decidedly shady German-born Detroit businessman (Horst Buchholz), to whom Karl, in his naivete, becomes a sidekick. Hovering over Karl in her concern is fellow angel Raphaela (Nastassia Kinski).

Dogging Karl at every turn is Willem Dafoe's menacing, enigmatic Emit Flesti--"Time Itself" in reverse, apparently the universe's Time-Keeper, who has another destiny in mind for Karl, who only wants the simple kind of life Damiel has with Marion; unlike Cassiel, Flesti can move back and forth between being a human and an angel. Besides Gorbachev, also passing through Berlin and impinging upon Karl's story, are Lou Reed (he's also seen in concert) and Peter Falk, who appeared in "Wings of Desire" as himself, a true mensch who cannot see angels but can sense their presence as few other humans can.

Through the interactions of these individuals plus many others, Wenders spins an up-to-the minute fable about the eternal struggle of good and evil, and its implications for Germany--and mankind, for that matter--past, present and future. Although Jurgen Jurges this time takes over for legendary cameraman Henri Alekan, "Faraway, So Close" is just as luminous as "Wings of Desire" in its richly modulated black-and-white sequences and equally beautiful color sections--it's Wenders' notions that angels are color blind. (Alekan this time appears as the captain of a ship in the film's final sequence.) Wenders observes his many people with the kind of wit, compassion and sophistication that Robert Altman brings to his films. "Faraway, So Close" really kicks in and comes alive when Buchholz appears on the scene as a classic good-bad guy, a rascally charmer with as much warmth as irony.

In handsome middle age Buchholz retains the charisma and presence that first brought him international acclaim on stage and screen three decades ago. There's resonance in his performance as there is in those of others, especially the veteran Ruhmann, Falk and Dafoe. Quizzical, wistful and wise, Sander's Cassiel rightly dominates the film with an essentially and appropriately passive presence.

Forbidden to shoot in East Berlin for "Wings of Desire," Wenders is now able to balance his portrait of Germany's key city in all its vitality, grandeur and scars of its tragic past. The film's visual sweep is matched by Laurent Petitgand's glorious romantic score, which contrasts with sharply contemporary songs not only by Lou Reed but also Laurie Anderson, U2 and Nick Cave, whose "Cassiel's Song" provides "Faraway, So Close" its eloquent end-title accompaniment. Although passed over as Germany's official entry into the Oscars, the demanding but truly rewarding "Faraway, So Close" significantly did take the grand jury prize at Cannes.

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'Faraway, So Close'

Otto Sander: Cassiel/Karl Engel

Peter Falk: Peter Falk

Horst Buchholz: Tony Baker

Nastassia Kinski: Raphaela

Heinz Ruhmann: Konrad

Bruno Ganz: Damiel

Solveig Dommartin: Marion

Rudiger Vogler: Phillip Winter

Willem Dafoe: Emit Flesti

A Sony Pictures Classic release of a co-production of Road Movies and Tobis Filmkunst. Writer-director Wim Wenders. Co-author Richard Reitinger. Dialogue Ulrich Zieger. Executive producer Ulrich Felsberg. Line producer Michael Schwarz. Cinematographer Jurgen Jurges. Editor Peter Przygodda. Costumes Esther Walz. Music Laurent Petitgand. Production designer Albrecht Konrad. Sound Gunther Kortwich. In English and German with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13, for language. Times guidelines: some scenes of drunkenness, moderate violence and intensity.

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