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MOVIES : Staring Death in the Face : Director Peter Weir has made a career exploring the mysteries of life. His latest film, 'Fearless,' deals with the aftermath of a plane crash and its effect on those who--can we say miraculously?--survived

October 17, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For nearly 20 years, Australian director Peter Weir has been the resident mystic of mainstream movies. Weir is far too unassuming to make such claims for himself, but a quick perusal of his filmography reveals that he's turned time and again to the metaphysical realm for raw material for his films.

Exploring mythology and ancient knowledge in collision with the modern world, the persistence of the primitive despite all attempts to tame it, memory, magic, the relentless wanderings of the imagination and the undeniable presence of all that is absent to the human eye, his films are at once poetic and rigorously intelligent in their depiction of the most intangible extremes of experience. With his 1975 film "Picnic at Hanging Rock," for instance, Weir recounted the haunting story of a group of adolescent schoolgirls who disappeared at a sacred Aboriginal site in 1900. Weir's film made no attempt to explain this baffling occurrence, and he explored issues of a similar enigmatic nature two years later with "The Last Wave," a meditation on Aboriginal magic and prophesy.

With his new film, "Fearless," which stars Jeff Bridges, Rosie Perez and Isabella Rossellini, Weir pushes the envelope even further. The story of a successful San Francisco architect who survives the crash of a commercial airliner that kills his best friend, "Fearless" moves from that traumatic launching point into a complex inquiry into death and how the fear of death functions in life. The film--written by Rafael Yglesias from his novel and shot on location last year in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Bakersfield--is shocking not so much for its graphic depiction of a crash as for its head-on investigation of a subject that's pretty much taboo.

"In the modern Western world most people die out of sight--we really have shoved old age and death under the rug in this culture," the 49-year-old director observes during an interview. "It wasn't so long ago that there were no old-folks' homes, and most deaths occurred at home, and the scene around the deathbed was the subject of countless paintings. Today death is quite remote. Accidents occur around us every day but they're cleaned up quickly, and it's never indicated that on a particular corner several people may have died.

"One might speculate that this aversion to death has something to do with the diminished role of any kind of spirituality in modern society. I just came from Bali, where you have a Hindu culture laid on top of an old animus culture, so everything there is infused with religion. Mixed in with that are things we'd reject as incredibly superstitious, but nevertheless, in Bali the material side of life is viewed as unreal and is the shadow, and the substance is what we can't see. This belief may play a role in the fact that the Balinese are able to accept death in a way that we in the West really can't."

The struggle to come to grips with this most disturbing of nature's whims is at the heart of Weir's film. For Max Klein, the fictional crash survivor played by Bridges, his brush with death is a transcendental experience that leaves him unable to re-engage with daily life, and deeply conflicted over the fact that he survived while his friend did not. Cast as his wife, Rossellini plays a woman tormented with grief and rage as she watches her husband slipping away from the life they once led as he is engulfed by the philosophical crisis engendered by the crash. Perez plays a young mother who loses her child in the crash and is tortured by her belief that the child's death was somehow her fault. Tom Hulce is an ambulance-chasing lawyer eager to put a dollar amount on the lives of the crash victims, and John Turturro portrays an ineffectual psychologist who attempts to rationally explain an event that defies all logic. These diverse characters allow Weir to explore the subject at hand from five very different vantage points.

"Essentially, this is a detective story and the mystery at hand is this: What happened to these people psychologically in the moments leading up to the crash?" says Weir, a boyishly handsome man with impeccable manners and boundless curiosity.

"In researching the film I repeatedly came across references to a particular mystical state poets often allude to wherein the body and the soul separate and one is able to contemplate one's existence with a degree of detachment. I think this is something of what Max experiences during the crash, and it erases his fear of death. That may be an enviable state, but it's also a state that separates you from other people because it can take you into the realm of having no feelings at all--and this too is something he has to deal with. Having no fear of death, he has to consciously choose to be in life, and we see him struggling with this choice."

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