Among the pleasures in this flawed but deeply hypnotic film version of Max Frisch’s revered 1957 novel Homo Faber is the sight of Sam Shepard thoroughly engaged in the craft of acting after years of doing hunk-for-hire work in such tripe as Baby Boom and Steel Magnolias. As Wallter Faber, a rational fifty-year-old engineer who gets blindsided by emotion when he meets a young woman, Shepard gives his finest screen performance.
Frisch is influenced by Greek tragedy – as is Shepard, to judge from his stage writing (Buried Child, True West). Though writer-director Volker Schlöndorff creates a suitably portentous atmosphere, he sometimes presses too hard. Schlöndorff’s big-book fetish can be fruitful (The Tin Drum) or not (Swann in Love). But he and Frisch, who died in April, make a worthy match.
Faber has been changed from Swiss to American, but the script faithfully hugs the book’s contours. On the way from Venezuela to New York in 1957, Faber’s plane crashes. (The camera work of Pierre L’Homme and Yorgos Arvanitis is breathtaking here and throughout.) Awaiting rescue in the Mexican desert, Faber is jolted when another passenger tells him that Hannah (the great Barbara Sukowa), the woman Faber loved and left twenty years before, had married the passenger’s brother and had a daughter.
Later, on a ship heading for France, Faber recalls his pain at losing Hannah. On board, he meets the youthful Sabeth (the excellent Julie Delpy), who stirs the emotions he’s repressed in his rigid devotion to intellect. Sabeth awakens him to love until – on a voyage that ends heart-breakingly in Greece – Faber must face the truth about Sabeth’s real identity. The film wants to evoke a sense of pity and terror. Of course, one man’s existential catharsis is another man’s kitsch. But Voyager, riding on Schlöndorff’s trust that audiences will get excited about the play of ideas, rewards close attention.