To get into the groove of doing this, I'm starting by reviewing a DVD, a relatively unknown film from 2004 called The Fallen. This is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. Maybe the strangest. I can't quite decide. I picked up the DVD on a whim one day, having never heard of it but thinking I couldn't go far wrong with a festival-winning film with a blazing cover for just £3.
"Saving Private Ryan but even better" is the review emblazoned across the top of the DVD. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of Saving Private Ryan and hardly know it by heart, but the only similarity I can think of between it and The Fallen is that they both feature the Second World War. Although when it comes to The Fallen you could be forgiven for forgetting which war you're watching, what with the character of Packard (who I thought was called "Packet" until the closing credits - bloody American accents) looking very much like he's arrived in Northern Italy via 1960s Vietnam, complete with crazy eyes and OTT facepaint. But make no mistake, this is WW2. Although most of the time it’s Dad’s Army’s WW2, not Saving Private Ryan’s.
The gravitas and even melodrama suggested by the poster, DVD cover and indeed the film’s title are completely and totally absent from the film itself. The blurb tells us that “the film boasts a unique cinematic style that evokes the feeling of authentic newsreel footage” by which it means the budget only stretched to buying the cameras from Dad’s Army to film it. The poor quality, high exposure and the tendency of green to leap out of the screen evoked the reaction of “bleugh!” from me personally, but after about 10 minutes it ceased to be obtrusive, and was only noticeable when special effects were called for.
The Fallen features a veritable smorgasbord of easily confused characters speaking a variety of subtitled languages, wandering through homogenous Italian forest that could be anywhere in the Northern hemisphere. It follows many groups of people; Italian soldiers, German soldiers, American soldiers and Italian villagers who have sided with the Allies. I don’t usually struggle with large casts but so few of the characters were of any interest that it was quite difficult to keep all of them in mind and hence also care when something good or bad befalls them.
The American soldiers take the form of a group of loveable, useless supply guys who are given an operation too scary for them, which then takes 10 times longer than it should because their jeep-type-thing breaks down and they are unable to repair it. It’s then repaired in literally seconds by an Italian villager who drives off in it. Yep, that’s the calibre of soldier we’re dealing with here. They are led by the alcoholic Malone and are instructed to take the lunatic “Packet” with them when their superior realises just how useless they are. Presumably hoping he’ll finally snap and murder them all. Or maybe that's just me.
You would think these guys would be the main focus of the film, and you would be right. Sort of. They disappeared for quite a while in the middle of the film, very occasionally appearing in scenes where nothing happens. And what are they ditched in favour of? An odd subplot about the Italian and German soldiers not getting along, rendered all the more daft by the fact that the only way to tell them apart is that German and Italian mercifully sound nothing alike. Oh and it’s settled over shooting a deer. Of course. The large cast of characters need not be a problem but the poor interweaving of all the subplots hindered my attempts to keep track of them, rather than helping it. Better editing certainly could have helped with this.
One of the big – and we are talking Godzilla-sized – problems with The Fallen is that you could quite easily forget that there is a war on. A few brief shootouts and the obligatory loud finale are the only times that the war itself intervenes. There is no tension. The Germans are more worried about running out of food than fighting the Americans, the Italians mostly debate the best way to surrender (I kid you not) and as previously mentioned the Americans are hiking aimlessly through the forest.
Quite early on you realise it’s ok to laugh. You wouldn’t have thought a film that pointed and laughed at Italians this much would win the Milan International Film Festival, but there we go. My favourite character, besides the wonderfully mad “Packet”, was Rossini; a greasy, chess-playing, wine-loving, Italian man who seems ripe for transplantation to New Jersey to replace Tony Soprano. We first see him scamming wine from an American soldier, and being driven around in a trailer full of chairs hitched up to an old tractor. Despite providing the greatest comic relief of The Fallen he also has the only journey that affects you in the slightest as the Italian army attempts to make an example of him to prove their loyalty to the Germans.
Yet even this seems like it’s just there to make a point. Rossini was only endeared to us to make his martyrdom more affecting, and even that martyrdom was quite clichéd. The raft of paper-thin characters is deployed in this way over and over again, but the characters are so weak it’s impossible to care; you don’t hate the axis armies for what happens to Rossini, you only miss him for what he could have brought to the rest of the film.
Ultimately it is the register of the film that kills it, you can’t take it seriously; the plot (what there is of it) is poor, the acting is ordinary, the cinematography is poor, and the film-maker knows that you’re going to be laughing so takes advantage of this with some comic moments. It would have been better if they had gone more Dad’s Army with the majority of the film and then wrenched the audience back to a harsh reality just as in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Unfortunately comedy was not used to endear more characters to the viewer and neither did The Fallen have the quality to earn the respect required to be taken seriously.
A curiosity of a film that I can only recommend you see once, and once only. If that. Purely to marvel at the strangeness of it.
And there's my first film review. Ever. I have never written a formal review of anything before, so I welcome any thoughts/criticisms on how I write, and how I've approached this, it would be very helpful!