Film

THE POINT OF NO RETURN

A mountain devours, a butterfly heals and a girl hides from the Taliban

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 23 2004
Film

THE POINT OF NO RETURN

A mountain devours, a butterfly heals and a girl hides from the Taliban

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 23 2004

THE POINT OF NO RETURN

Film

A mountain devours, a butterfly heals and a girl hides from the Taliban

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

WHEN YOU’RE WATCHING a really good thriller, it’s a visceral experience. Your whole body gets into the act, busily converting anxiety into adrenaline. Although it’s only a movie, it can leave you emotionally and physically drained, as if every cell of your sedentary being has conspired in an unlikely leap of imagination. It’s what Samuel Coleridge famously called “that willing suspension of disbelief.” And what’s remarkable is that you can be on the edge of your seat even when you know the outcome of the story in advance. That’s certainly the case with Touching the Void, a gripping docudrama about a legendary climbing accident. Throughout this movie we’re reminded that the climbers in question lived to tell the tale, because that’s exactly what they do—via interviews woven into a dramatic re-enactment. But somehow that doesn’t dampen the suspense. Touching the Void, a literal cliff-hanger, may be the best climbing movie ever made. It’s also the most thrilling suspense movie of any kind that I’ve seen in a long time.

Based on the 1988 bestseller by British mountaineer Joe Simpson, it tells a harrowing tale of survival. In 1985, Simpson and climbing partner Simon Yates set off to scale the treacherous west face of Siula Grande, 6,400-m peak in a remote corner of the Peruvian Andes. They reach the summit, the first climbers ever to do so, but on the way down, battered by a sudden storm, Simpson falls and shatters his leg. Yates tries to lower him to safety on the end of a rope, but inadvertently drops him over an ice cliff. As Simpson dangles from the overhang like a fish too heavy to reel in, his weight is slowly pulling his partner off the mountain. So Yates is faced with a gruesome decision. Rather than die with his fellow climber, he pulls out a Swiss Army knife and cuts the rope, sending Simpson plummeting into the void.

Yates makes it back to base camp, convinced his partner was dead. But Simpson survived a 50-m fall into a giant crevasse, a dark cavern of snow and ice that he reckoned was about the size of the dome above St. Paul’s Cathedral. He couldn’t climb out; he can only go deeper, hoping to find light at the end of the tunnel. And for the several days, without food or water, he crawled down the mountain in excruciating pain, not knowing if there would be anyone at the bottom. Yates, meanwhile, is racked by guilt—by cutting the thread between him and his partner, he’s broken the most basic taboo of mountaineering.

For a while, Hollywood was trying to turn Simpson’s book into a movie starring Tom Cruise. We can be grateful that hasn’t happened. Touching the Void traverses a daring line between drama and documentary. And in the genre of climbing movies, its authenticity is unparalleled. Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald shot in extreme conditions, both on the Andean mountain where the events took place and in the Swiss Alps. Actors Brendan Mackey (Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (Yates) resemble their subjects closely enough that we accept them. It also helps that they have virtually no dialogue, and are disfigured by frost. They look like raw, otherworldly incarnations of the real-life climbers, who spin the verbal narrative in separate interviews delivered straight to camera in intimate close-ups.

Simpson’s wry English manner deftly undercuts the horror of his ordeal. As the life ebbed out of him, he recalls, a dumb pop song by Boney M rattled through his hallucinations. Simpson remembers that he kept thinking “Bloody hell, I’m going to die to Boney M.” A confirmed atheist, Simpson swears he made no last-ditch deals with God, but there’s a sense that he’s at the mercy of something. “It’s like someone was just teasing an ant,” he says, “and was eventually going to stand on it.” And as he crawled to what looked like certain death, the erosion of life was “a slow, steady reduction—you just become nothing.”

Simpson doesn’t blame his partner for cutting the rope, and insists he would have done the same. But Yates, who came under heavy criticism in the climbing community, clearly occupies the less enviable side of the story. No matter how justified he may have been, his eyes look haunted. For most of the film, he and Simpson exist in separate worlds. Yet they remain bound by an unbreakable tether, a narrative tightrope suspending disbelief above the void.

The Blue Butterfly is another wilderness adventure based on a true story of miraculous survival. But this Canadian production takes the opposite tack, changing names and embellishing fact with a whimsical gloss of fantasy. And as a family picture, designed for a child’s eye, it marks a departure for director Léa Pool (Lost and Delirious, Emportemoi), one of Quebec’s more serious auteurs.

The movie is based on the story of a 10year-old Montreal boy with terminal brain cancer whose dying wish was to capture a rare butterfly called the Blue Morpho. He persuaded celebrated entomologist Georges Brossard, founder of the Montreal Insectarium, to help him fulfill his quest in a tropical rain forest. After finding the butterfly, the boy made an astonishing recovery (he’s now 21). A typically dyspeptic William Hurt plays Alan, the character based on Brossard. Quebec actress Pascale Bussières co-stars as the boy’s widowed single mother. And Marc Donato, a somewhat over-polished veteran of 25 movies, portrays the precocious kid coping with cancer in a wheelchair.

After much prodding, and some emotional blackmail, Alan agrees to take the boy and his mother on a butterfly hunt in the Costa Rican rain forest. A cozy triangle is set up, in which everyone gets to heal everyone else: the distracted scientist estranged from his daughter, the protective mother consumed by worry, and the stoical boy trying to beat cancer with butterfly wings.

With Brossard serving as an insect consultant on the set in Costa Rica, the film offers a vivid excursion through the rain forest, a National Geographic rainbow of small creatures in closeup. But Pete McCormack’s script undermines the veracity of the story with a Disney dose of fabulism. After a jungle chase worthy of Indiana Jones, the Blue Morpho morphs into a shimmering special effect, a tropical Tinkerbell. Maybe kids will find it enchanting. But, with my own disbelief unsuspended, I was dying to know what really happened.

As a Canadian film, The Blue Butterfly represents a curious phenomenon. Although it’s in English, Alliance Atlantis will release a French-dubbed version on a whopping 60 screens in Quebec, while it plans to put out the original English version on just 22 screens in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. But Quebec cinema has its own star system and a loyal audience—perhaps loyal enough to follow Bussières, their own exotic butterfly, on a feel-good Anglo odyssey.

Osama, another drama inspired by a true story, is a much darker tale of a child seeking salvation in a strange land. Written and directed by Afghanistan’s Siddiq Barmak, it’s the first movie to come out of that battered country since the rise and fall of the Taliban. Last year it received a Special Mention for a Caméra d’Or in Cannes, and more recently it took the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film. Set in the early days of the Taliban, it’s about a 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) who has to disguise herself as a boy in order to find work. Knowing that she could be put to death if discovered, the terrified child is drafted into a religious school, along with all the boys in the village. Amid rising suspicions about her masculinity, a plucky street urchin tries to protect her and gives her a name, Osama.

The movie provides an extraordinary glimpse into arcane rituals of Taliban repression, from summary executions to a bizarre scene of a mullah instructing boys in the discreet art of genital ablutions. Barmak cast Osama with amateurs recruited from schools, orphanages and refugee camps. He found his star, Golbahari, on the street. She’s a haunting presence, with intense dark eyes that burn between fear and buried anger. Influenced by the distilled narrative style of Iranian cinema, Barmak builds his quiet tragedy into a vision of poetic horror that affords no escape—in a world where disbelief is a matter of life and death. Iffl