Judge Brett Cullum was confused by the lack of talking elephants in this Oscar contender, until he realized he was thinking of "Babar"...
If you want to be understood…listen.
Babel completes the trilogy of films from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, preceded by Amores perros and 21 Grams. Movie industry types are calling it this year's Crash (the Oscar winning diatribe on racism, not the kinked-out Cronenberg car wreck film). Babel is a mournful journey across cultures, but inside is hope for understanding. It presents a spiritual challenge that the Tower of Babel days are over, and we all have far more in common than we ever thought despite the barrier of language. I wish the hype machine for Oscar 2007 hadn't grabbed a hold of Babel. It's a worthy film for "Best Picture" of 2006, but it's a small personal project that happens to be set on a global scale. It's an exercise in Biblical intimacy, and an intriguing project from a skilled filmmaker. In the end it is far more fascinating on a human level rather than on a worldwide scale. The scenes that work the best are the simple exchanges, even though many will impart the proceedings with political messages.
Facts of the Case
Babel weaves together four stories scattered around the globe, all linked by an accident in Morocco along with the confusion it causes. A goat herder and his sons in Morocco's mountains, a pair of tourists on a winding road, a Mexican nanny with her blonde charges, and a deaf-mute Japanese teenager all are swept into what the media turns into an international incident labeled as an act of terrorism. In a world where we've come to expect political violence, it's surprising to find those who want a simple human touch to make pain subside.
Brad Pitt (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) gave up a starring role in The Departed (a film he helped produce) to head up this international cast. He is a fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu, as was Oscar winning actress Cate Blanchett (The Aviator), who plays Pitt's wife. Gael Garcia Bernal and Adriana Barraza both appeared in the Mexican filmmaker's Amores perros project, so it is logical they should have roles in this story, which deal with immigration as a Mexican nanny takes a pair of American kids to her son's wedding across the border. Rinko Kikuchi (Arch Angels) auditioned repeatedly over a year to play the deaf-mute Tokyo girl desperate for affection, while newcomer Boubker Ait El Caid got to play Yusef (the Moroccan goat herder's son) simply because the director saw him playing soccer one day. It's an impressive cast no matter how they were assembled, and there is not a weak link in the entire chain of characters, who all must deal with some horrifying melodramatic events. Pitt is aged and uglied considerably for his role; Blanchett writhes in pain for most of the running time; but in the end two other actors steal their thunder. Barraza as the nanny and Kikuchi as the lost Tokyo girl give the two most heartbreaking performances. They, along with the two boys in Morocco, become the heart of Babel, and in turn eclipse the bigger names with honest pain.
Babel has been nominated for seven Academy Awards in 2007—including Best Picture, Director, Editing, Achievement in Music, Supporting Actress for Barraza and Kikuchi, as well as Original Screenplay. Alejandro González Iñárritu took home a directing award at Cannes, and the cast has won numerous ensemble acting awards at various ceremonies. Babel took home a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama at the 2007 Golden Globes (even though Scorsese won the directing prize with The Departed). This review was written shortly before the Oscars, but it is easy to imagine Babel taking home more than one golden man at the Academy Awards for very obvious reasons.
Babel is a well made, thoughtful, politically correct drama, which makes it easy to embrace for the Academy or any other critical awards organization. Alejandro González Iñárritu excels at making "tapestry" movies that deal with pain, as he proved twice before, and it is predictable he took the grand melodrama of Amores perros and married it with the mournful tone of 21 Grams for his third outing. Babel is a natural progression for both the man who made it and the film community. It is a small spiritual independent movie, filled with big name studio actors like Pitt, and a nice global message that can play in any theatre in the world. It is a beautiful piece of art, yet it is one we saw coming miles away. Does that make it less powerful? Absolutely not. The film is a masterpiece of acting, editing, music, and storytelling. Everything blends together very well, and there is a sense of a master craftsmen working on the symphony from every angle. Though Babel never seems to match the delicious puzzle of Amores perros or the sheer pain of 21 Grams, it achieves exactly what it sets out to do with virtuoso ease.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only problem with Babel is that it's one of those films Hollywood likes to embrace because it provides a multicultural plea for understanding. It comes about the sentiment honestly, but we've been here before. The impact is lessened by all the attention heaped on the importance of a quiet story that can be taken sensationally. Like the accident central to the main plot, Babel is given far more universal importance by the media and critics who see it as an event. The truth is it is simple human elegance that makes the film come alive, and not the grand world peace epic many have made it out to be. Alejandro González Iñárritu's work remains strong and intimate, but it is odd this is the chapter of the trilogy that has garnered the most attention so far. The common thread of his three films has been the great character work he seems to pull out of his cast, coupled with the beautiful attention to detail he provides in the cinematography and editing. He handles small humans thrust into multiple overlapping big situations with ease.
Like many Academy Award contenders, Babel seems to have been rushed out into the DVD market with a bare bones edition. Though the transfer is rock solid and the theatrical surround sound design remains intact, there's not a single extra save for a spoiler-ridden theatrical trailer. Could a double dip be far behind? Especially if this one takes home any major awards, expect a quickly thrown together Collector's Edition in no time. Serious film buffs who hate double dips may want to give this one a rental until after the Academy Awards roll around. Chances are, even if gets snubbed at the awards show, there's got to be more out there to support this film. As it is, this release of Babel provides you only with a pretty transfer of a good movie with nothing else. And also for some reason we get the annoying return of the "You wouldn't steal a car!" anti-piracy campaign on the release, so keep the volume low when you start this one up.
Believe the hype, because Babel is easily one of the best films of 2006. The only thing you have to keep in check are your expectations: this a quiet well-told melodrama, and not the second coming of Crash, i.e. a multicultural milestone. Alejandro González Iñárritu and the cast are trying to show a simple connection all humans have, and it's not meant to be a grand treatise on racism or terrorism. Forget the politics and admire the characters. This is a well-made, beautiful film, and it's worth checking out. Be wary of the fact a more loaded collector's edition of the DVD is as inevitable given the well-deserved praise heaped on Babel.
Guilty of being a powerful look at the human condition, Babel is simply the work of a master storyteller doing what he does best.
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