Babel is by far one of the more complex and symbolic films of 2006, but where it succeeds it also fails. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is also a victim of his own success. After the highly charged and emotional 21 Grams, I had huge expectations for Babel, and the movie simply doesn't live up to them. Good, yes. Very good, yes. But beyond that, Babel struggles to connect all the pieces.
Babel has a lot of things going for it. Iñárritu's direction is marvelous, and he ties what is essentially an ensemble story into a cohesive, rhythmic beast. The thematic properties of the project pulse in every aspect of the film, and the actors elevate themselves to meet the material. The movie is sad without being tragically depressing, though it's hard to watch two young boys' lives being destroyed for a stupid mistake, or a Mexican maid's future spiraling out of control.
Interestingly, the two other key stories are less interesting. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's tale of a couple stranded in a remote Moroccan village, as the wife struggles to survive, is good but not emotionally overpowering. This segment plays out more like a romance than a commentary on our times. At the same time, the story of a deaf-mute Japanese girl who is trying to come to grips with her sexuality is the most unique of the group, but Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi's character is the most difficult to connect to, and strangely, the hardest to sympathize with. That's not to say that Kikuchi does not do a terrific job, but her story works more on a thematic level than on a storytelling one.
Babel is an intriguing drama and delivers a very real message, but isn't nearly as powerful as I wanted or needed it to be. I watched the movie once in theaters and was mildly disappointed that it didn't punch me in the gut, and then watched it again on DVD just now with hopes that I would appreciate it more. Oftentimes, movies like this are better the second time around. If you're expecting one thing and get another, you'll almost assuredly be disappointed. But a second viewing allows you to appreciate the movie for what it is. Unfortunately, Babel struck me the same way twice.
The movie has been compared to Crash, and most people say it is better because it doesn't try to hit you with direct emotional punches. Perhaps this is true, but for Babel to truly succeed it needed to be a blend of what it actually is and what Crash was. Crash was powerful, even if it was in a cliché way, and entertained the audience and allowed us to cheer for the characters. Babel is strong, but not emotionally involving, and isn't nearly as entertaining. A movie can be good, but it needs to be entertaining, and Babel has times where it isn't.
Still one of the better films of the year, Babel isn't as good as the director's previous efforts and lacks the emotion power of some of its competitors. It is certainly worth watching, but is not a personal favorite.
Review #2 (A+)
By Nathan Vass
Two peasant boys in the Moroccan desert take turns firing a newly acquired rifle into the distance. The gun doesn't seem to have much range, and they test it out by firing down the hill on which they are standing. It is purely by accident that one of the bullets slams into an American civilian (Cate Blanchett) in a tour bus far down below. Her husband (Brad Pitt) tries frantically to communicate with those around him, but has little success. On the other side of the globe, a young Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) struggles hopelessly for acceptance- she is deaf, and shunned by all around her. Meanwhile, a well-meaning Mexican nanny takes the American couple's children across the border, but things do not turn out well.
Babel is a film that defies description. The above synopsis does the film a terrible injustice, in that it does not at all convey its immense, raw emotional power. This is the final film in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's "parents and children" trilogy (the other two films being Amores Perros and 21 Grams ), and if you've seen those films, you know the heartache that Iñárritu is capable of depicting. Babel manages to go even further. It deals on a significantly larger physical scale, exploring such themes as globalization and terrorism, while maintaining the focused emotional intimacy of his previous work.
This is not a film for the faint of heart. Iñárritu and his writer, Guillermo Arriaga, create situations and scenarios that overflow with tension and emotional pain. The film is structured in such a way that we know that the Cate Blanchett character will be shot before she actually is, and the moments immediately prior to the shooting are as tragic as the moment itself. Iñárritu gradually pulls out the sound, as Gustavo Santaolalla's minimalist score takes over, and the inevitability of the event, combined with the characters' obliviousness to the impending gunshot, is so painful, and yet so beautiful to experience. Iñárritu's ability, in all his films, to communicate stark, immediate emotion is staggering. The final few scenes, which I will save for you to discover, could hardly have stronger impact.
Another bravura sequence takes place at a Japanese nightclub, where Kikuchi, playing the Chieko, deaf girl, is taken by some questionable friends. As everyone grooves to the loud, danceable music (Earth, Wind and Fire's September), we realize that Chieko can't hear a thing. As Iñárritu cuts between blasting music and dead silence, we realize how alienated she must feel. Interestingly, Iñárritu was once a disc jockey, and his command over music is evident here. Kikuchi's performance is a revelation, and unquestionably the best female acting of the year. She has a very watchable face, and conveys her character's feelings with great clarity. The role is not simply difficult because it involves playing a mute (although I still have difficulty believing that she's not deaf in real life), but because it requires her to convey a wide range of emotions more complex than most speaking roles.
The three story threads, all related in some way to the shot fired by the Moroccan boy, are equally compelling. The "interlocking storyline" structure, pioneered by Robert Altman and refined by Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh, is an approach that is too often used by amateur filmmakers and television directors. Iñárritu is separate from this crowd; his always-interesting structural explorations elevate him above his less skillful colleagues. His key to success seems to be in putting a unique twist on the interlocking format with each new film- Amores Perros told its stories separately, even as they occurred at the same time, and 21 Grams completely ignored a chronological arc, in favor of an emotional one. Here, Iñárritu weaves the stories together almost as if they were one big story, and in a sense they are. The title, of course, refers to the biblical tale of the tower that was never completed because the people could not communicate and were thrown in disarray by language barriers. Babel transposes this theme onto the contemporary world, emphasizing the universality of humanity's frequent failure to communicate to each other with any sort of clarity. I would argue that this is Iñárritu's strongest and most ambitious film yet, and certainly the most affecting release of the year. This is one of the great ones, folks. You won't regret seeing it.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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