Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rug Rats Blog-a-Thon: Catinca Untaru

My Stuff and Cr*p is hosting the Rug Rats Blog-a-Thon. Children have been in movies since the beginning of cinema. 19th century French labor laws aren't my specialty, but I'd bet at least some of those Lumiere workers were kids. A century later, the kids are still acting. Salvatore Cascio, Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud, and Peter Billingsley have served up some of the most memorable performances this side of the Shirley Temple franchise.

Catinca Untaru has cemented her spot on the list of impressive child actors. Starring in Tarsem's The Fall, this young actress makes Dakota Fanning look like Gilbert Godfrey in a Uwe Boll film. To better understand the specialness of Untaru's performance, you have to first understand the specialness of The Fall.

The Fall was a dream project for director Tarsem. Famous for his commercial and music video work, the Indian filmmaker had an idea of letting a child guide the film. He decided that he needed a four-year-old for his idea to work. Years later, he was given a tape with a young Romanian girl (Untaru) and was so capitvated by her that production started immediately.

The film follows a Untaru's character, Alexandria, as she tries to occupy her time in a hospital while she recovers from a broken collarbone. During her stay, she meets a depressed silent film actor/stuntman named Roy Walker (Lee Pace) who was recently paralyzed after a stunt went bad. Recently dumped by his girlfriend, Roy wants out of life. Contained to his bed, he enlists the help of Alexandria to get the morphine he desires.

Roy tells Alexandria an epic story filled with fantasy elements and mythical heroes. Each day he tells her another section of the story. As the two bond together, he pursuades the little girl to get him some morphine from the medical center. The film cuts between the 1920s hospital and the timeless fantasy world. Alexandria's character shows up in both worlds and Untaru's performance in The Fall overall, is incredible.

Catinca Untaru was born in Bucharest in March 1997. Eleven now, only six when filming started. Another fact, she didn't speak English when she landed the role. But the director used her language barrier to the film's advantage. He wanted a four-year-old for the role because of their societal innocence, but Tarsem found that Untaru worked perfectly, her inability to speak English made up for her age.

"One day I got a tape of this girl at a school in Romania, in the middle of students talking. I was amazed. She was perfect. She didn't speak English. The penny dropped. She was six, but if she didn’t speak the language she would be using, the misunderstanding would buy me the two years that I needed. Because she had to seem four." (Ebert Interview with Tarsem)

One of the scenes everyone's talking about involves Roy asking Alexandria if she is trying to save his soul. "Are you trying to save my soul?" Her reply is indescribable. In my opinion, this is one of the most amazing moments captured on film. She smiles, pauses, opens her mouth, smiling. It just has to be seen. As it turns out, Untaru didn't know what the word "soul" meant and reacted naturally. That's the innocence Tarsem was looking for.

"It's true. One of the treasures of the film is the sound of the dialog by Catinca Untaru. We understand every word, but she sounds as if she's inventing them as utters them." (Rober Ebert, possibly replying to what I just wrote)

Only Tarsem and Lee Pace knew that Lee Pace could walk. Hoping to capture people's real reactions to a handicapped person, the director kept the secret until shooting wrapped. When filming ended, they told everyone the truth, to mixed reactions. Some people were upset, others took it as good news. Tarsem remarked on Untaru's reactions to pace when she first met him.

They met while shooting their first scene together. To her knowledge, Pace was actually paralyzed and she was nervous because of that. That nervousness comes through in her performance. But as the film progresses, it's easy to see how much the young actress has bonded with her co-star. A lot of the dialogue was improvised and spontaneous. Tarsem claims that by the third or fourth take, Untaru would nail the scene. The director allowed flexability and freedom in his film and let the little girl craft the story.

The script was ever-changing. In the scene where Lee Pace writes M-O-R-P-H-I-N-E, Untaru mistook the actor's "E" for a "3" and they changed the story to suit that. When she read "3," Tarsem told the prop man to fill the morphine bottle all the way up. Then when Alexandria steals the pills, she only grabs three, not enough for Roy to kill himself. This flexability allowed the film to remain fluid and capture all of the special moments that only a child can create.

You can credit Tarsem for directing an amazing film. You can be in awe of the shooting locations, spanning 28 countries. You can love how the story weaves betweens worlds of the real and the fantastic. But without Untaru's performance, none of that would tie together. Untaru appears to be the glue that holds The Fall together. Quite a lot of responsibility for a six-year-old, but after watching the film, it'd be hard to argue that she didn't get the job done.

Ain't It Cool News has been covering The Fall with more attention than anyone else. Capone, a member of the AICN staff interviewed Tarsem, the links are listed below. Moriary, another staff member, gave his feelings towards Untaru and her performance in the link below. I got a lot of my information from them, so I'm givng credit where credit it due. Thanks, guys.
Part One:
Part Two:
Moriary's Thoughts:


Lunatone said...

Aww, this post made my heart happy. She was so incredible in this movie. I love this post.

Michael Parsons said...

Thank you so much for participating!
I really need to see this film, as I have been hearing a lot of good things about this performance.

Thank you so much for joining in the fun. Hope you host one soon too!!!

Runs Like A Gay said...

This is a great insight into how the film was put together - you've managed to get me more excited than I was before about it. Visually from the trailers I can see it's going to be fantastic, but with this sort of history that's truly something.

Can't wait until it gets a UK release date.

Cknopf said...

I swear I'm here for the articles, not just to bump your visits for the day...

Happy Tuesday, bro.

Daniel said...

Great pick on an a promising up-and-comer, Scott. The Fall has kind of vanished from the scene in the last month. I wonder if it will still be in the technical award discussions come Oscar time.

pavithra muthalagan said...

just got done watching it :) so beautiful and sad and ..just wow.