Child actor

23 March 2010

Last night I watched Tarsem Singh’s “The Fall” on DVD and wished I’d seen it in the theater — not just because of his truly amazing visuals (and please, just for pleasure tick through a gallery of stills here), but because of the terrific Catinca Untaru, a 9-year-old Romanian actor who nails her part.

I’m generally not big on films about children, and if it weren’t for Untaru’s acting this one could have been treacly in its portrayal of an imaginative little girl listening to tall tales.  She is the film, insofar as she expresses so well being transfixed by the tale told by a paralyzed, depressive fellow patient played by Lee Pace.

Her acting is unexpected enough that it’s full of tiny little delights. Her broken left arm is trussed in one of those ridiculous casts that cocks it up at shoulder level, yet she insists on carrying in that hand the cigar box where she keeps treasures she collects from her friends. When she wanders unchecked through the hospital grounds, she moves her tubby little legs like a real child — awkward, un-selfconscious, determined. There’s a great scene in which she steals wafers from the hospital’s chapel and expresses genuine confusion when Pace demands if she’s using them to save his soul. When she cries with despair, real tears stream down her cheeks; and when she lies to him, she sticks to the lie for what seem to be realistic reasons unique to children. [update: YouTube has removed those clips, but you can watch the trailer here.]

It’s to Pace’s credit that he lets her so perfectly express the viewer’s wide-eyed pleasure in the rambling tale. After all, it should have been his movie, after a series of lame TV parts that mostly demanded that he be memorably cute. But in letting Untaru be the utterly believable character — and turning himself into a caricature — Pace demonstrates a degree of actorly generosity that doubtless enhanced the little girl’s translucence.

A final note I haven’t quite figured out yet: The mini-biography of her (which sounds like it was written by a family member) insists that Untaru had a remarkable ability throughout the film to distinguish herself from the part she played — an insistence that, oddly, reminded me of Scorsese’s description of Jodie Foster’s child prostitute in “Taxi Driver”: that she had a piercing understanding of the difference between reality and the part she played. Untaru may well have a similarly well-adjusted perspective. But the fact is you’d never guess it as you watch her emotions flit across her face in all her scenes. In a movie that should be memorable for its fantastic imagery — those shots of whirling dervishes, the view down onto the village of blue houses, the strange man who emerges from the belly of a tree — I can’t stop thinking about her very real little girl’s face as she listens to stories. I’m not sure why we need to hear that child actors are able to distinguish between reality and movie fantasy; because the one thing that potentially makes them so great onscreen is when they seem utterly real, and whatever artfulness they might possess as actors falls away.