Once upon a time all humans spoke the same language. Really. It says so in the Bible. But then humans transgressed and did something silly. They built this really tall tower and since God had told them not to build it, he had to punish them. Right? So He created many, many different languages, poof! so that people of the world could no longer understand each other. Within the context of that sorrowful story, the movie Babel more than earns its name. The angst and alienation created by the spiritual, political and linguistic dis-connect of today’s world is the film’s theme. Postmodern existentialism at its best. Of course you’ve been reading lots about this film since its November release, but since it will be one of the top contenders for an Oscar this year, I figured I’d chime in. Here’s one of those cases where I have to agree with some local film critics, Lisa Jensen and Bruce Bratton— Babel is big.
One way to judge the quality of a movie is by how long it lingers in the mind. If I’m filled with the sights and emotional vectors of a film, days after I’ve seen it, I know it’s hit some archetypal nerve. Babel is still roaming around in my biochemistry.Here we see faces, situations and relationships that Hollywood consistently avoids. Or, even worse, neuters. But the blazing creative team of director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu (21Grams) and Oscar-winning Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla (hypnotic, phosphorescent score), offer a film interweaving — sometimes with seams showing — the seemingly disconnected sagas of four far-flung groups. No Hallmark lens has been used to soften the careworn family ties, the hardwon joys (a definitive Mexican wedding) and the harsh loneliness (a glittering, throbbing Tokyo) of 21st century existence. The series of events that drive the film starts with a rifle shot in the remote Moroccan desert. This links together two American tourists fighting for survival, an illegal border crossing by a Mexican nanny, and a young Japanese deaf-mute adrift in the club scene of Tokyo.As the film deepens, the tales start to converge and while the film can’t quite pull off its lofty ambitions, it comes damn close. And in the process creates a document that looks and sounds beautiful, but feels like a soul crawling on broken glass.
A few things to mention. Remember when Brad Pitt was all washboard abs and a pretty face? Well, now the abs are softening, and the face looks more like late-night puppy dog than golden cupcake. But that’s not the issue. Brad still can’t act. Babel was often excruciating for me to watch – and not simply because of Pitt’s inability to convince. He’s terrifically believable during the moments of physical desperation, as a wealthy American raging against political red tape while his wife (Cate Blanchett) is bleeding to death. But during the quiet moments Brad just can’t hack it. It’s a tribute to Babel that Pitt’s dramatic deficits don’t disturb this cinematic cry for cultural accord. (This film manages to avoid preaching – something Cindy Sheehan should learn.)
Artfully contrived, yet so deeply felt by the filmmakers that it triumphs anyway, Babel articulates the lack of communication — and the missed connections, that define life on a crowded, information-overloaded planet. The small performances are most indelible. Faces that would never turn up in a Hollywood film, faces that are not by Western standards pretty, or safe, shine from the screen. The sensuous reconciliation between the two Americans, while one is close to death, stranded in a dusty nowhere. The beauty of the young Japanese teenager (the luminescent Rinko Kikuchi), utterly stranded in her silent isolation in the middle of a throbbing Tokyo disco. The lusty joy of Mexican wedding party — Gael Garcia Bernal as a good-time renegade almost steals this film — easily the most rousing wedding celebration on film. Even more vibrant and revelatory than the landmark nuptials in The Godfather.
But then most of you already know all of this. And yes, this IS the one soundtrack you need to buy!