Friday, February 02, 2007


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel, the apparent conclusion of a bleak stylistic trilogy the director began, in collaboration with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), with Amores Perros and continued in 21 Grams, is a movie made by a man who isn’t driven by the exchange of ideas, or the interweaving of ideas, or even the collision of ideas. With Babel, Inarritu is satisfied with raw emotional reaction, even if it’s merely simple discomfort or dread. Just knowing that that something awful (or at least humiliating) is coming down the pipe for each character is apparently enough. Babel plays, with its four stories that aren’t interwoven so much as they are pasted together with rhythm-free pacing and affectlesness, as if it were edited by a somnabulistic channel surfer looking not for thematic resonance in the way one story leads into another, but for relief from the realization that once each story reveals its hook it will literally go nowhere, and not so fast.

Like Crash (a far more interesting movie, even if it is also a far worse movie—perhaps because it is a far worse movie), Babel takes its cue from the billboard obviousness of its biblical title and proposes itself as a grandiloquent metaphor for our modern disassociation and inability to communicate. In all seriousness, the movie is no more profound than a simple statement that our languages and cultures not only divide us but hamper our ability to understand each other, whether we are face to face or trying, with increasing futility, to meaningfully communicate using technology— cell phones, e-mail, TV news. In the one story where clashing cultures cannot be held culpable for this societal detachment, Inarritu and Arriaga feel no shame in making their protagonist, a Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) lost in anguish over the suicide of her mother and acting out her anger in a series of increasingly desperate sexual situations, a deaf-mute. That crushing sound you just heard is a sledgehammer metaphor landing on top of the viewer’s head. Babel is a movie made by a filmmaker seized by one simple idea who then, by devising narrative strategies designed to keep the viewer off-balance, gooses his film into the appearance of profoundity.

It’s not a new approach—Nicolas Roeg, as one example, built a career out of editorial gamesmanship, shuffling chronology and point of view, often to devastating effect (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and sometimes not (Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, Track 29). But Roeg also paid attention to the details of visual cues, graphic continuity, images that drew subtle references to other images, from within the film and from without. He had the eye of a deranged imp, and when he was firing on all cylinders the viewer was usually too enthralled to notice, especially in the case of The Man Who Feel to Earth, that had the story been told in a more straightforward manner its seams, or even the true simplicity of its narrative, might have been more apparent and perhaps less moving.

Babel tricks up its narrative(s) too, with the same sort of sleight-of-hand that its director used to headache-inducing effect in 21 Grams. But the new movie isn’t quite so much a confusing scramble— each story is laid out in fairly routine get-from-point-A-to-point-C-by-way-of-point-B storytelling. The only time the stories backtrack on one another is in their initial setups—the Moroccan boys out hunting jackals with a rifle who shoot at a bus, with apparently serious results, are left behind so we can see the married couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), on vacation trying to recharge the batteries of their relationship in the shadow of a child’s death, argue, board that same bus and wait to be dealt their next cruel hand. Soon we’re introduced to the nanny (Adrianna Barazza) with whom this vacationing couple (who really should have considered a seaside resort rather than a dusty, demanding bus tour of Morocco) have left their two children. She receives a phone call from a man who says “she’s in the hospital now” and to not worry, over which the nanny expresses great relief. She’s so relieved, in fact, that when she can’t find anyone to take care of her employers' kids so that she might go to her son’s wedding just over the border into Mexico, she actually thinks it might work out well if she just brings them along for the ride. With her nervous, tic-ridden, clearly unstable nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) behind the wheel to deliver them into Tijuana, what could happen, right? Then it’s back and forth as these three stories play bumper cars with each other for a while, until the seemingly unrelated segment with the Japanese girl is introduced.

Outside of its obvious thematical connection to Inarritu’s sprawling position paper, it does take a while for the director and screenwriter to tease out just what literal connection this girl’s story could possibly have with the rest of the film. When they do, it’s certainly a bit of a stretch—the girl’s father (Koji Yakusho), who she obviously holds responsible for her mother’s suicide, is a globetrotting hunter who gave the rifle, which will be given to the boys and will eventually fire the bullet that perforates Blanchett’s neck, to a guide he met on a Moroccan hunting trip. This is the tenuous connection upon which the movie builds its chaos theory of catastrophe. Were there an overriding visual intelligence at work in Babel, it might not have been enough to bolster such a fanciful bummer of a fractured fairy tale, but it might have at least made the movie’s plumbing less transparent, or provided some poetry to use as the glue that connects the various sequences. But Inarritu is comfortable leaving the audience to do that kind of heavy lifting for him. Babel is bereft of the kind of rich connective tissue that made The Godfather Part II’s leaps of time and storytelling momentum glorious acts of collusion between the director and the audience. Instead, Inarritu settles for familiar nausea-inducing camerawork that signals the in-your-face verisimilitude he values far more than poetry, yet provides no sense of what is supposed to hold this narrative network of medicinal pessimism together-- Babel is meant to be good for you, and to hurt as well, and a lot of people seem to be fine with taking the director’s word for what it is that allegedly makes for the flesh and blood of this movie’s worldview.

In talking about the movie to someone who thinks far more highly of it than I do, I questioned whether there is any room in Inarritu’s directorial vision, suffused as it is with the pursuit of shopworn universal truths about our pitiless existence, for a simple moment of pleasure. Those Moroccan boys are seen gamboling about on the hills above the road that will eventually deliver their fates to them, laughing, arms stretched out, allowing themselves to be held up by the strong winds that buffet the surrounding narrows—but only in flashback, after their story has taken its inevitable, fatal turn. And that Mexican wedding has plenty of tequila and dancing to ranchera music to counterbalance Bernal’s getting big laughs by decapitating a hen in front of the shocked children in his aunt’s care. Why, even the aunt herself finds a stolen moment of romance with an old flame. But all the frivolity plays out under a gathering cloud of doom that we know (otherwise, why would be sitting here watching it?) will soon rain degradation and horror upon the woman and these kids. (Be happy now, for this too shall pass.) Pitt and Blanchett (two movie stars whose very presence adds a lopsided sense of entitlement to the ingredients of Inarritu’s bitter pill) rekindle their dormant lust for each other on the dirt floor of a Moroccan hut—if only he didn’t have to use one hand to keep the poor woman from bleeding to death. And as good as she is in the role, Kikuchi’s character is allowed only agony and desperation—she may be giggling when she flashes her pantiless pubes at some green schoolboys, but we know she’s miserable because the director won’t let us forget it for a moment.

And Kikuchi is memorable in the role. She brings a weight to the girl’s suffering that is entirely separate from any sympathy we might have for her because of her inability to hear. In fact, the jabbing, staccato rhythms in which she deals out sign language to her father are the furthest thing from comforting communication between father and daughter. Each twist and flick of finger and fist is a dart thrown at him that hits exactly the intended target-- his tormented soul. Kikuchi, who is neither deaf nor mute, captures with admirable precision the body language of both a teenage girl (she is 25) and a deaf teenage girl—the mixture of halting insecurity and playfullness with those agonizing moments of sexual playacting are affecting because they feel true and seem original at the same time. It is here, in fact, in the film’s acting, where those elusive moments of pleasure are to be found—they’re in Blanchett’s face when Pitt refuses to argue with her (about what we don’t yet know); in the howls of despair rippling from Barazza in the personage of that nanny, brought low and stumbling through the Sonora Desert, as she tries to speak reasonably to a border patrolman and direct him back to the two children she’s left to bake in the sun; and in the face of the father of those two boys in Morocco, a loving man who can’t contain his anger when he’s told of what they’ve done, or the nauseating realization that because of it the lives of his boys, and most likely his own, are all but over.

Babel is well-acted throughout. Perhaps because the presence of marquee names like Pitt and Blanchett are reduced to but a fraction of the screen time, they’re unable to wield enough Method-induced mopey snot-and-tears anguish to (literally) bring the house down the way Sean Penn and Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro and Melissa Leo were allowed to in 21 Grams. And perhaps because Inarritu has given lesser-known perfomers like Barazza and Kikuchi a chance to operate in a lower key, the movie doesn’t feel oppressive as far as the actors, even the ones in smaller roles, are concerned. (Bernal, however, is wasted in a part that never finds resolution, one that might as well have him wearing a placard that reads “plot device”—in Spanish, of course.) But the unfortunate truth is, without Pitt and Blanchett it’s unlikely that Babel would be getting half the attention it is—their glowing movie-star visages, writhing in agony on that dirt floor or screaming in righteous outrage at uncomprehending Moroccan officials or boorish fellow bus passengers, lends marketplace credence to audiences eager to be impressed and Academy members lusting after big important themes to go alongside tabloid-familiar name brands.

Inarritu has said that in conceiving the individual narrative strands to be intercut, he was looking to avoid them coming off as simple short stories. But if he and Arriaga were willing and/or able to devote any real sensitivity to the development of the stories, a simple narrative could have been more than enough, and the unpleasant sensation of being wrenched out of one story at inopportune, random moments and being herded to the next could have been avoided. If anything, the emotional power of Babel is continually defused rather than accentuated by this faux-complex format, but despite the director’s Herculean efforts, the banality almost always shines through. I was continually reminded not only of the lack of meat on the bones of any one of the narrative strands, but also how the film’s infrastructure serves to elongate those moments of dread, where the fates of Blanchett, Barazza, her two preadolescent charges and the boys huddling in fear amongst those Moroccan hills are left for us to marinate in until the film lurches back and doles out more information. It’s a pretty unseemly way of going about creating audience tension, dangling the possible deaths of innocent children in front of an audience, then either rubbing our noses in the bloody awfulness of it all or resolving the situation with a couple of lines of dialogue in order to get on to the business of completing another character’s absolute downfall and humiliation.

Personally, I have had it with big-time directors (and small-minded ones) who amp up their big statements by holding the threat (and delivery) of violence or death upon kids over an audience in order to make them cower and be happy to swallow the dubious medicine their movies are pedding. And it makes me depressed that yet another big movie, geared for Oscar glory, has to stoop to such methods. It’s all about tricking up the message, adding whipsaw camera movement and editing to what is essentially a lugubrious high-concept lecture. Our inability to communicate and understand each other in this modern age (to say nothing of our willingness to accept an incredible amount of horseshit and criminal behavior originating from our governments) is indeed cause for great and profound sadness. But I think Babel, to some degree, banks on just that damming of the flow of understanding. How else to explain that such a potentially rich theme could be so thinly realized and yet still be proclaimed as a masterpiece?


David Lowery said...

Great review. I already wasn't too much of a fan of this movie, but then they started that advertising campaign with the tagline "No Film Moved You More." ARRRGHHH!!! It made my skin crawl!

Alexandra S said...

I was surprised how much I liked the film personally. For me it was just another reminder that is all to easy to forget how connected we are to one another through thousands of seemingly invisible threads.

Sal Gomez said...

I know this has nothing to do with your latest posting but I just suddenly remembered the line from Elton Johns Captain Fantastic album that went, "It's party time for the guys in the tower of Babel."

Question: why aren't you published yet?

afraid said...

Good piece. I agree with pretty much everything you said. Either the project was just too ambitious to be pulled off, or a previously fresh and exciting director/screenwriter team showed us that they only really had one good idea in the first place. I mean, Amores Perros is an excellent film, a raw and instantly involving work that challenges and invigorates, but each subsequent collaboration has required a greater leap of faith on the audience's part to connect with the material. Of course, the Academy are more than willing to fill in the gaps and bestow awards upon work they've themselves embellished.

I would actually single out Koji Yakusho as the standout cast member. His face in that scene with the young detective by the elevator... perfect. Pity that whole storyline wasn't its own movie, in which case we might have been able to see more of his fine work.

Steve said...

Just got home from watching this... Jesus, what a crock. The Japanese segment deserves its own movie; everything else deserves to be shitcanned.

Anonymous said...

Right on, man. Couldn't agree more.

Brian #2 said...

thanks for this great review. I have not yet seen Babel, primarily because I live in a small town and it hasn't played around here yet, but your very thoughtful piece confirms some of my worst fears. I especially appreciate your remarks about the filmmakers' inability to allow pleasure-- I think that's true of a lot of current "indie" films, and you are absolutely right when you say that they disallow pleasure because to do so would upset the tendentious "messages" the films often want to present.

Just out of curiousity, what would you have said if the Cate Blanchett role was played by a young julie andrews? (:

Nobody said...

THANK you. Your reaction was basically identical to mine.

For some reason the last couple years have been filled with movies that fancy themselves extremely sophisticated for making very obvious points; in this case, "miscommunication often leads to unnecessary conflict." I've never felt so patronized in a theater.

I didn't have sympathy for anyone in this movie except the kids who get taken to Mexico (whom like you said are cheap bait). I temporarily felt sorry for their nanny because her nephew was such an idiot, but when she deserted the children in the desert it confirmed she really was a terrible nanny herself, removing any sympathy for her when she's later deported.

The only moment of emotion for me was when Brad Pitt was talking to his son on the phone, but its effectiveness didn't result from the first two hours of the film -- it could have been in any movie about parents who loved their kids (though their choice of nanny throws that into doubt).

The real lesson of Babel is: being stupid or assocating with idiots gets you and those you know in serious trouble not excluding death. I mean, those kids shot at a bus! How stupid is that, even for a ten-year-old?

I bought 21 Grams a few months ago (because I'm a Naomi Watts completist) and I've been meaning to watch it, but if I'm just going to be condescended to I'm not sure I'll ever be in the mood.

The Mexican triumvirate is definitely 1 for 3 this year, with Babel being almost as overrated as Pan's Labyrinth (revelatory message: real life is the true horror story). But in contrast to its company, I believe Children of Men deserves every plaudit it's received.

Brian said...

Still no comments? I just want to say that I haven't seen Babel but couldn't resist reading this voraciously. Well done.

Brian said...

Still no comments? I just want to say that I haven't seen Babel but couldn't resist reading this voraciously. Well done.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

The comments are back! Sorry, everyone! I was poking around, performing some minor surgery on my settings, and somehow I set things up so comments had to have approval, yet I did not indicate that I wanted to be notified when they came in! Nothing like something like this to make one feel, shall we say, inadequate. So we're back on line and ready to go!

David: My wife and I were just expressing our disbelief about that one the other day: "Five languages... Four stories... ONE TOWERING ACHIEVEMENT! (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone)"-- NO FILM MOVED YOU MORE. Thanks for letting me know, Paramount Classics! You really care!

But perhaps even worse, because it's so deceptive and obviously pitched at Academy voters and audience members who are turned off by what they may have heard about the movie's grim agenda, is what she and I have termed the new "Happy Babel" 30-second TV spot. All the smashed-together shots in it are of smiling Moroccan children as seen from tragedy-bound buses, Rinko Kikuchi grinning and high-fiving a girlfriend, Pitt hugging Blanchett, Blanchett beatifically smiling at the camera, all pitched to the same James Horner-esque swelling orchestra used to unload every other big Hollywood drama. Oh, yeah, this is definitely the Babel I saw!

Alexandra S: Thanks for stopping by. I think reminders of that sort are important too. But I just resented what I felt was the pandering methods the filmmakers used to get that message across, and how they seem so eager to be awarded for it. I'll take It's a Wonderful Life instead!

Hi, Sal! Why didn't Inarritu use this song at some point? :)

Afraid: I agree about Koji Yakusho. His wounded stoicism was very moving. Had the writer and director reined in their desire to make grandiose statements and just made a movie about this story, I don't know whether I would have liked it either, but I would have been more immediately interested and hopeful that they'd come up with something original to say.

Brian #2: Julie Andrews in the Cate Blanchett part, eh? You're trying to get me to say I would have rejoiced when that shot rang out, aren't you? Well, I won't! :) But I would have been a lot less on her side as a performer than I was on Blanchett's, I will say that, even though the part is an essentially thankless one. I am now imagining Julie Andrews being cradled in Brad Pitt's arms while lying in a pool of blood on that dirt floor, as she begins singing "Climb Every Mountain" or "A Spoonful of Sugar"...

Nobody: I'd say two of three from the holiday Mexican directors triumverate, as I thought much more highly of Pan's Labyrinth than you did. But other than their identity as Mexican filmmakers, the three films don't seem similar enough to me to speak of in any comparative terms. Cuaron's own last three movies barely resemble each other, in stylistic terms anyway, let alone Babel vs. Children of Men. But I really think you hit it on the head when talking abou the general credibility of the story(ies) in Babel-- a whole lot of sympathy is frittered away as we watch a lot of characters, not just the nanny, do some increasingly stupid things in service of the screenwriter and director's narrative whims.

Finally, I apologize if this is too much shameless self-promotion, but That Little Round-Headed Boy directed me this morning to a very nice mention this review got, in the presence of some heady company, by The Hollywood Reporter's Anne Thompson, who is herself a big fan of Babel. Considering that I didn't express her own view of the film, I thought it was a very generous thing on her part to recommend my review to her readership. Read about it right here.

Again, sorry about the Blogger blunder, folks! I am off to fix it for good, so it will never happen again! Thanks for hanging in there with me.

Nobody said...

I agree that Babel, Pan, and Children are not companion pieces aside from their general political themes, but their being grouped together nonstop by the media (and by their makers, as exhibited in this week's press party) makes comparison of the directors if not their films inescapable.

The thing about Inarritu and Del Toro and is that they seem to be remaking their own movies -- the Arriaga trilogy for the former and the Devil's Backbone/Pan's Labyrinth for the latter (and perhaps even Blade II/Hellboy) -- while Cuaron has spent the past few years methodically conquering genre after genre (Great Expectations, Y Tu Mama, Harry Potter, Children of Men). The only new filmmaker off the top of my head who has done comparably diverse genre work in less time is Gore Verbinski with The Mexican, The Ring, The Weather Man, and the Pirates trilogy.

Of course there's something to be said for sticking to a chosen genre and mastering it, but so far Inarritu and Del Toro haven't left the comfort of a single genre while Cuaron has proven himself to be the real deal, not just a one-trick pony.

One scene in Babel had puzzled me about its inclusion, that of the Moroccan boy indulging himself, but I now realise it was a symbol of the film itself. Hopefully Inarritu will attempt new things in future projects.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Well, I went to see Babel last weekend. I lasted for about 10 interminable minutes and snuck into The Queen instead. But don't worry, Dennis, I'll brave it this weekend. I know I have to.

Steve said...

One scene in Babel had puzzled me about its inclusion, that of the Moroccan boy indulging himself, but I now realise it was a symbol of the film itself.

I spent that entire passage thinking, "If he orgasms right as the gun goes off, I'm fucking leaving." I don't know if it's good or bad that that didn't happen.

Christian said...

Great review, Dennis. And that comes from one of your readers who has, elsewhere in the comments section of this blog, proclaimed "Babel" a "masterpiece."

Rather than ask pointed questions about your review, I'd like to step back and ask something that may be potentially highly inflammatory -- to either you, your readers, or both.

Are you a Christian? Are you at all religious?

I think the answer affects how you see this movie, but I don't want to claim that all Christian critics (I'm one) feel the same way about this movie. No, there's just as much of a split among religious critics as their is among mainstream critics.

I haven't read Thompson's review, but she's mentioned on her blog that she's a Christian. And she likes this movie.

The underlying idea here, which you don't acknowledge in your review, is that "Babel" is not about only dark emotions, but is also about terrible things that *might* happen but don't. True, some of these things involve young children, but other awful things fail to befall the adult characters as well. Fairness, it seems to me, would require critics of the film to acknowledge this, rather than reinforce the tired stereotype that this movie is all about trauma and doom.

Christian said...

There's nothing worse than writing a pointed post, designed to provoke, only to spell "there" as "their" along the way. Sigh.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Ha! I am hereby dismissing Christian's post on grounds of too many typos! :)

Seriously, thanks, Christian, for returning the volley in such a thoughtful and, yes, provocative way. If you will accept a bit of a delay in my response, I'd appreciate it, because you ask a question that I would agree hasn't been addressed in any great detail by reviews that I've read, and I'd like to be able to take more time than I can allow here at work to try to answer it.

Anyone else who would like to chime in in the meantime on the question of the relevance of religious belief to one's reaction to Babel, please do.

Christian said...

Thanks, Dennis. I await your response, and should add the obvious, if overlooked by me, question as to Innaritu's faith background, which will inform the director's intent with "Babel." I believe he, as well as the other two "amigos," was raised Catholic, but I don't know if he claims to be "lapsed" to some extent.

I'm still not sure how director intent and viewer experience go together. That's something I continually wrestle with, and would be delighted to hear others' thoughts on.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yeah, a director's background as a Catholic is interesting information, but it seems to me to be an unreliable barometer of what the end result might be. De Palma definitely brought a Catholic sensibility to several of his films, most notably Carrie (where it got mixed in with lot of Protestant fundamentalist fervor), and Hitchcock did too, but they both have a considerably different shade of humanism and perspective on religion than what we might expect of movies by Scorsese or Coppola or Ford.

And I think how a director's intent dovetails (or does not dovetail) with an individual's experience of any given film is a fundamental aspect of what every thoughtful viewer processes when considering a movie's effect. It's a knotty, fascinating question.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Christian asked, of me, but also I think of all of those who didn’t appreciate Babel:

“Are you a Christian? Are you at all religious? I think the answer affects how you see this movie, but I don't want to claim that all Christian critics (I'm one) feel the same way about this movie. No, there's just as much of a split among religious critics as there is among mainstream critics.”

He goes on to say: “The underlying idea here, which you don't acknowledge in your review, is that Babel is not about only dark emotions, but is also about terrible things that might happen but don't. True, some of these things involve young children, but other awful things fail to befall the adult characters as well. Fairness, it seems to me, would require critics of the film to acknowledge this, rather than reinforce the tired stereotype that this movie is all about trauma and doom.”

Deep background first. I was raised a Catholic by a Catholic father and a mother whose own religious roots were in Protestantism but who made a half-hearted stab at conversion when I was a youngster. Dad tried to retain the habit of churchgoing for us that he grew up with, but it was never much more than a Sunday morning ritual for him. I think I inherited the skepticism that came more naturally to my mom, and by the time I graduated college I was ready to admit that Catholicism was not unlocking any spiritual doors for me. I spent the ‘80s trying to figure out what I believed, and no immersion in the belief patterns and lifestyles of surrounding friends ever translated to much more than an ill-fitting suit than I knew was destined to be hung up in a closet somewhere. Though I sometimes have a lot of questions about God and for God, I can say that I still have a fundamental believe in the spiritual nature of our lives and our purposes that remains basically what it was when I was young, and I have a deep interest and curiosity in religion and religious belief as a spiritual and social phenomenon.

And I have had my gilded cage rattled fairly profoundly in the last 20 years by several life-changing events—events that are by no means unique to me as a member of the human family, but events that have served to tilt my own spiritual perspective from a more-or-less unreserved belief toward a more chilling prospect, what was always framed for me growing up as God’s allowance for man’s freewill, but what Stanley Kubrick might have termed, and what Warren Zevon did term as “the vast indifference of heaven.” I don’t believe that God moves us around like pawns for his will anymore than I believe he helped the Indianapolis Colts win the Super Bowl or Halle Berry win the Best Actress Oscar (although something must have been going on there…) And if I don’t believe he’s moving us around for our or anyone else’s good, then it doesn’t make sense to believe that God dwells in the beyond, doling out punishments for our various behaviors in the form of tsunamis or political assassinations or incurable disease. The only answer to the question “Why?” (or “Why me?”) that seems to make sense, in terms of personal, political or geographical trauma, is that these horrors happen because it is allowed in the realm of physical possibility that they sometimes might. Vast indifference? Freewill? Chaos theory? The jury’s still out, at least for me.

To be honest, Christian, I’m not sure how my belief as a Christian of whatever stripe has colored by view of Babel. But as one who doesn’t look upon God as a master orchestrator of human behavior, I would think that would make me more susceptible to the movie’s basic interest in seeing how a butterfly flapping its wings (or firing a rifle) in Morocco can result in a Mexican nanny leaving two kids to roast in the desert, an act that ultimately leads to her ignominious return to her home country. (I'm speaking here strictly in chronological terms.)

The problem for me here, as far as the movie is concerned, is that I don’t think Babel works even as chaos theory—the connective tissue, the causality that links the four stories is so tenuous that “contrived” hardly seems an adequate description. A Japanese man gives a rifle away to a guide, who gives it to a shepherd, whose sons use it irresponsibly and cause the near death of an American tourist. So far, so good. But when looked at schematically, the story of the Japanese deaf-mute girl seems like dead thematic weight, or more appropriately weightier than the rest of the film and also not directly connected to the movie’s daisy chain of disaster, and therefore throws the whole model out of whack. (I think by the scrambling of the narrative, Inarritu and Arriaga may have been trying to somehow deal with, or neutralize, this very problem.) And on the back end, just what about any of the rest of this stuff links up to what the nanny does? Sure, it does in terms of pure plot-driven necessity—the parents must be out of town-- though again, the question of why they didn’t do something more conducive to serious discussion of their marital woes than hop a dusty bus in Morocco is a question less facetious than it sounds. But everything else about the nanny’s thread is contrivance, a way of adding another continent and language to the cinematic puzzle and keeping the director from getting bored.

I found it interesting too that Jeffrey Overstreet, film critic for Christianity Today, (a publication I’ve always admired for its intelligent, non-inflammatory perspective on pop culture), found space in his generally positive review of Babel to bring up something germane to this discussion:

“Where is God in all of this? The question doesn't even occur to most of these characters. While we glimpse some Christian symbols on the edges of these stories, these seem to be little more than cultural decorations. When a Muslim man bows to pray, the Westerner looking on seems bewildered, as if surprised to find that people in this world still sometimes pray.

Iñárritu's film is not the first movie about alienation to use this metaphor. Michael Haneke's masterful international drama Code Unknown opened and closed with scenes in which deaf children struggle to interpret each other's gestures in a game of charades. Similarly challenging, Haneke's film was more subtle and artful. Iñárritu gives a team of Oscar-caliber talent—cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, production designer Brigitte Broch, editor Stephen Mirrione, and composer Gustavo Santolalla—room to shine. And yet, by comparison, his film seems heavy-handed.

Babel's biggest problem is that when Iñárritu and Arriaga collaborate, the results are almost always dispiritingly morbid. Babel is Arriaga's finest script yet… But, like Amores Perros and 21 Grams, the film feels like a 21-car pile-up of catastrophes.”

I like Overstreet as a writer, and obviously I would agree with his points here. (By the way, Christian, would you have any idea how long J.O. has been writing for this magazine? I remember reading the Christianity Today review of Blade Runner when it was released in 1982, and it seemed to me one of the most perceptive reviews of the movie at that time, one that wasn’t afraid to engage the movie’s attempts to deal with the idea of God.)

And I don’t see your point that emphasizing only the horrors that are visited upon the nanny or the shepherd’s kids, or even the ghastly alienation of the Japanese girl, is somehow unfair to the movie. The fates of the young children in the nanny’s care are rather distastefully dangled in front of us in order to make us squirm, and yet the resolution of their story is tossed off in a line or two by a quietly condescending border official. And the big storyline involving Pitt and Blanchett, the big “romantic” (if you will) center of the movie (and it’s ad campaign) is resolved with a shrug as well. After spending all that time with Blanchett and Pitt moaning and screaming on the floor of that Moroccan hut, to hear on an overheard Japanese news broadcast that, oh, yeah, she’s pulled through, and that’s pretty much that, seems an egregious case of dropping the ball, at the very least.

No, if you want to get down to it, interestingly enough, the bad things that might have happened but don’t happen, those are reserved for our (white) movie stars and their pigmentally vulnerable kids. I don’t think that if I’d mentioned any of these facts in my review it would have made me seem any more or less fair to the movie. And in fact, in a more marketplace-driven review, the critic who did mention them would probably be stoned to death (metaphorically speaking, of course) as an indiscriminate wielder of spoilers. It may have seemed a facetious response when I replied to Alexandra S's endorsement above, but as someone who is interested in narratives that demonstrate "how connected we are to one another through thousands of seemingly invisible threads," I was being sincere when I said I'll stick with It's a Wonderful Life.

Christian, thank you for asking questions that can't be answered easily. I hope I haven't overstepped my bounds in indulging my answers. (This is a post's worth, for sure.) I hope you'll keep coming by so we can continue this, or talk about another one.

akstanwyck said...

Now that the Arriaga/Gonzalez Inarritu trilogy is officially over, I can't wait to see what the director goes on to do with other collaborators, because there is no question that he is eager to move on, and that he shows a lightness and playfulness as a person that the poetic, downbeat Arriaga does not. I prefer Amores Perros and Babel to 21 Grams, which was buried by its grim intensity. Yet the somber The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is also a powerful screenplay. Both men are willing to try new things, experiment, and dig for raw authenticity. Many critics have trouble with the trilogy's non-linear structures, which build emotions across different story arcs.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I too am looking forward to what Inarritu has to offer outside of his collaboration with Arriaga. I was a bit surprised when I remembered that Arriaga had written Melquiades Estrada, and my resistance to Inarritu's films with Arriaga may boil down to what you're suggesting-- I'm all in favor of a director trying new styles and techniques, but when I start to get the sense that the technique or style is there to distract me from something, then I want to see that director work a little more straightforward, to see him or her get by without so many tricks and diversions. It's true that I certainly respond more immediately to the laconic style with which Tommy Lee Jones approached Melquiades Estrada than to the hand-held, in-your-face insistence and chronological mix-and-match Inarritu has used up till now. And I really do enjoy being surprised by a director whose films I had not yet particularly appreciated. I'd love to see what he did with material that was 180 degrees from the tone of the Amores Perros/21 Grams/Babel trilogy.

stream movies said...

Like in the Bible, Babel took ordinary stories, and made a huge salad out of them until a good movie came out :) if you can see it while you are fully concentrated, you would find out a great plot and acting performance.

Movie Links said...

I saw this movie last night.Babel directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is one of the most compelling films to date. It is quite good movie.