The Angels Return

You have to tip your hat to any motion picture with a scope broad enough to make room for former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, nihilistic rock and roll animal Lou Reed, and Peter Falk as Detective Columbo.

Faraway, So Close, the sequel to 1988's hypnotic Wings of Desire, is, like its predecessor, set in Berlin. But the city has changed dramatically in the wake of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and the new film weaves into its fabric much of director Wim Wenders's meditation on the resultant upheaval. Gorbachev's sobering presence seems perfectly appropriate, at once a respectful tribute to the man who almost single-handedly defrosted the Cold War and kept a cool head when the Wall came tumbling down, as well as a reminder of the momentous gravity of this historic epoch.

Wenders views life through a wide-angle lens; Faraway succeeds largely on the strength of his wisdom and humanistic world view. The film tackles themes as big as they come A the meaning of life, the existence of a supreme being, loss of faith, the redemptive power of love. The legacy of World War II and the normalization of relations between the East and West are secondary motifs. Calling the film ambitious is an epic understatement.

Too ambitious, perhaps. Both Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close are sprawling, lyrical, episodic tone poems whose plots are secondary to their imagery. This is not necessarily a bad thing; Fellini and Bergman are not famous for catchy, high-concept story lines that could be easily condensed into a sentence or two. Like those two masters of the cinematic arts, Wenders uses the lens more for revelation than for exposition. The results are often breathtaking; his cameras swoop through the skies, slog through the sewers, slink down the alleys, swagger through the chrome-and-glass high-rises, and pick their way through the crumbling tenements of reunited Berlin. He has the keen eye and assured hand of a virtuoso.

But the narrative is another story. Wim wends his way through so many bizarre permutations that after a while, the temptation for the less-than-committed viewer is to give up. Watching is a taxing process, both exhilarating and exhausting. The dramatic currents are constantly shifting. One minute it's a poignant spiritual odyssey, the next minute it's a wacky caper movie. One scene features a former Russian leader thinking deep thoughts at his desk, the next scene features an American rock star in his hotel room trying to come up with a line for a song. You can go a little crazy trying to figure out the connection, and Wenders seems to take perverse pleasure in delaying the disclosure.

Like Wings of Desire, Faraway, So Close tells the tale of an angel who becomes human. Sad-eyed Otto Sander beautifully reprises his role as Cassiel, the world-weary winged messenger who roams the streets of Berlin, watching people go about their business, privy to their innermost thoughts but unable to share either their joys or their pain. Cassiel dotes on Damiel, who was Cassiel's seraphic colleague (in Wings) before renouncing immortality for a chance to live life rather than merely observe it. Like Damiel before him, Cassiel longs to experience color (angels see everything in black and white), taste, and smell as well as love, anger, and loneliness. One day he gets his chance.

And that's where the sequel departs most radically from its predecessor. Wings of Desire was content to explore the human condition through the eyes of Damiel. First he was a confused outsider, then he was a human being flooded with feelings and sensations, all hitting him for the first time. Faraway covers some of that ground, but then it wanders off in a zillion directions at once. Willem Dafoe is a shadowy, sinister being named Emit Flesti ("Time Itself" spelled backward) who moves between the angels' world and the humans'. He objects to Cassiel's conversion and wants to see him returned to angeldom. Another angel A the compassionate Raphaela, played by a radiant Nastassja Kinski A pleads Cassiel's case with Flesti. Dafoe and Kinski are fine, but their roles are superfluous. Cassiel doesn't need Dafoe's character to make life difficult for him. It's already tough enough just getting through a day as a human being. And Raphaela, while she makes a ravishing sounding board, ultimately has no bearing on his circumstances. She's a treat to look at, though, and you can't argue with the gratuitous beautiful-girl rule, which is as old as filmmaking itself.

The flesh-and-blood Cassiel briefly reunites with Damiel and his family (Damiel is now married to Marion, the melancholy trapeze artist from Wings, and they have a young daughter) before heading out into the street to begin his great adventure. After paying a forger to create a human identity for him (one of the film's central conceits is that our identity is at least partially a function of paperwork; by buying a fake passport with the name Karl Engel, Cassiel becomes fully human), Cassiel endures more than he bargained for. He bounces from Good Samaritan to armed robber to homeless alcoholic in record time before being rescued from the pit of despair by a high-living wheeler-dealer who makes Cassiel his right-hand man and plunges the fallen angel into a moral crisis. Eventually Wenders brings the whole messy stew to a boil with a bizarre climax that involves circus acrobats ripping off an international arms dealer and a final confrontation between Cassiel and Flesti.

A classic example of linear storytelling it isn't. Yet Wenders's bold vision of a brave new world and his awesome talent for evoking haunting, indelible imagery make the whole improbable fusion work. Faraway, So Close is not an easy movie to watch; to be appreciated it needs to be approached in a contemplative frame of mind for its expansive philosophy, idiosyncratic rhythms, and audacious vision. More parable than movie, the film establishes Wim Wenders as a mythmaker of the highest order.

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