`FARAWAY, So Close,'' the movie by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, has the most unexpected cameo performance of the year. None other than former Soviet ruler Mikhail Gorbachev appears in a brief but moving scene, playing a world leader who sits at his desk and dreams of global peace.
Landing such a well-known figure for a cinematic self-portrait was quite a coup for Mr. Wenders, but few things about ``Faraway, So Close'' are ordinary. A sequel to his 1987 hit ``Wings of Desire,'' it takes another look at the experiences of angels who watch over human beings - and who love the people under their care so much that one angel can't resist falling to earth and becoming part of their world.
``Faraway, So Close'' was not received with much enthusiasm at last spring's Cannes International Film Festival, even though some admirers managed to wangle a special Grand Jury Prize for it on closing night. Since then, Wenders has trimmed about 40 minutes from the picture, so audiences may find it more engaging when it opens on American screens this month. Also in its favor is a star-filled cast including Nastassja Kinski, Otto Sander, Willem Dafoe, Peter Falk, and legendary rocker Lou Reed.
Talking about ``Faraway, So Close'' over brunch shortly after its first Cannes showing, Wenders spoke with touching sincerity on the thoughts and feelings that went into its making. The theme, he explained, is what the angel Cassiel says at the beginning, and repeats with the angel Raphaela at the end. ``They say that angels love us, and are here for us, and are messengers,'' Wenders notes. ``And the message they bring is love.''
When he first tackled the challenge of evoking the world of angels on film, Wenders tried all sorts of technical tricks that might convey a sense of the supernatural. But eventually he realized that technology wasn't the answer to his problem. ``The camera had to translate another way of looking at ourselves,'' he says. ``It wasn't technique but texture that was needed.''
Wenders has sought new kinds of cinematic texture in the past, testing fresh approaches to narrative time in ``Kings of the Road,'' to form and color in ``The American Friend,'' and to storytelling structure in ``Paris, Texas,'' among other experiments. He sees his new picture as an attempt to bring cherished values back to the forefront of moviemaking.
Today's world, he says, is swamped in degrading images. As one result of this, filmgoers have forgotten that ``looking is a cycle.'' When we look at a person or event, ``we are supposed to take something in and give something back,'' the filmmaker insists. ``But we have fallen out of the cycle - we only take things in now, and we don't bother to give anything back.''
Another problem is that ``in our culture today, everything that happens is in the context of selling.... Consumerism has reached into every aspect of our lives. And the film business is definitely a microcosm of this situation.... I watched many films by [Hollywood directors] like John Ford and Fritz Lang when I was young, and they were about issues you could deal with in your mind and think about - moral issues, issues of life and death. Now films are interested in little but marketing and entertainment. It's almost embarassing!''
Violence also causes trouble on the screen. For example, Wenders observes, ``with few exceptions, movies about war are really propaganda for war.'' Is something similar true of movies about sex? ``There the opposite effect tends to happen.'' says Wenders with a smile. ``Love is something that can't be shown in a film. Films often show people making love, but I get up and walk out of the theater when that happens. This is a time when a camera should not be present.''
In addition to his own filmmaking, Wenders is heavily involved with the European Film Society, which bestows the annual European Film Awards.
``The goal is to help European cinema survive at a time when it's an endangered species,'' the director explains. ``Europe is a place with many small countries that speak different languages and often have no real film industries of their own today. European cinema and culture are shrinking. In Germany, about 94 percent of the screens are filled with American films; in other countries it's up to 99 percent.... Governments are protecting vegetables and cars, but it's hard to protect an industry that's also a form of culture.''
Wenders's next project will probably be a small and intimate film, since he likes to make modest productions - both fictional and documentary - between his major ones. He expected ``Faraway, So Close'' to be less ambitious than ``Wings of Desire,'' but it turned out to cost twice as much - which is not surprising, since Wenders considers the earlier film to be a ``poem,'' while the sequel is an ``explicit'' examination of the issues embodied by his angel characters.
Wenders's career has been too varied, and too uneven in terms of critical and commercial success, for a neat summary. Still, it appears that his intention as a filmmaker shares much with Cassiel's aim of communicating love to humankind. ``The angel realizes that the goal is not to talk into your ears,'' Wenders says, ``but to try and live in your eyes.''