By Pam Cole
December 8, 2006--I saw Babel while I was
in LA recently. Happens that our ace reviewer, Vince Rogers, also
saw Babel the same weekend and wrote a terrific review
for our website. But with all due respect to Vince and the many
other reviews I've read with curiosity that panned the film as confusing
and over-reaching, I had a much different take. I thought Babel
was a masterpiece, worthy of a Best Picture nom.
To me, Babel was a gorgeous cinematic expression
of the difficulty we all have communicating with each other, regardless
of class, circumstance, or language. I didn't see four different
stories in Babel; I saw at least four examples of
the same story that ultimately showed how we all struggle to communicate.
With not one weak performance in the entire ranging cast, supporting
actress Oscar talk has already surfaced for Adriana Barraza for
her portrayal of Amelia and Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko, both relatively
unknown in America. And while Brad Pitt gave one of the performances
of his career (no doubt informed by his newfound parental status)
he is not cited for Oscar attention. Which does nothing to diminish
his role -- it merely highlights the fact that there were over 20
outstanding performances in this film. This level of acting made
the dramatic experience of Babel all the more intense.
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu
(also 21 Grams) goes all around the world with his
stories and characters, seriously jump-cutting from Morocco to LA
to Tokyo, jolting viewers from one plotline to the next. While some
found this disconcerting, to me it was a useful transitional device,
guiding the audience from narrative to narrative.
The objective connection between the stories isn't revealed until
near the end of Babel, but it's no huge surprise when
it comes. Iñárritu uses foreshadowing throughout the
film vis-à-vis television news reports and dialog to let
us know that there is an actual physical connection between the
four stories. Part of Babel is paying attention, looking for the
clues, connecting the dots that you already know are there. This
is great storytelling, interweaving rich, disparate narratives in
a way that leads us to the material objective end.
However, it's the subjective connection of these stories, the struggle
of all humanity to communicate clearly and truthfully, and the ways
that some (not all) of the characters are ultimately able to communicate,
that is the true story of Babel.
If you haven't seen Babel, stop reading here and
go experience it for yourself. Pay attention to the outstanding
musical score by Argentinean Gustavo Santaolalla (also Brokeback
Mountain) in every scene, and the representation of a dance
club as experienced by a deaf teenager. Try to overlook the overused,
overactive camera movement. (It sometimes made me nauseous.) Savor
the beauty of landscape and texture and color that appears despite
the dizzy camera. The cinematography borders on experimental at
times, so try to accept it as such.
Richard and Susan (Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are an affluent American
couple trying to reconnect after losing a child. "What are
we doing here?" Susan asks Richard, as she stares at the bleak
surroundings of a village in Northern Africa, thousands of miles
away from their home. "Being alone," he answers tellingly--
not being together, but being alone, as the two remain emotionally
separated from each other even as they travel through a third-world
country on an American tour bus. Eventually, they do connect, after
tragedy, in great fear. After Susan is accidentally shot and seriously
wounded, she must rely completely on Richard. At one point, he helps
her to pee in a tin pan. This vulnerability suddenly opens the doors
between them and passion, confession, and forgiveness, all at once,
Richard also tries to communicate in various ways (with varying
degrees of success) with:
--his sister in America, yelling at her to listen, which she won't
in her panic.
--the American embassy, who won't listen due to politics.
--the other riders on his tour bus, who won't listen due to fear,
and abandon him.
--his son in America, in a powerful scene where he tries to communicate
love and security while choking on his own fear.
That's just one story. There is also the Moroccan father who gives
his two sons a rifle to protect the goat herd, while utterly failing
to communicate how to use the rifle or the possible dangers. How
many times in America do we hear the tragic stories of children
killed, who don't understand the dangers of a weapon in their own
home? Yes, the circumstances are utterly different, but the outcome
is horribly the same in Morocco and America.
The difficulty of communicating with authority is a huge theme
in Babel. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's the
Morrocan police, the Mexican border patrol, or the American Embassy;
it's hard to make authority figures understand, to listen without
predetermined attitudes, in any country or language.
There's another fascinating story about the difficulties of communicating
as a deaf person, told from a deaf person's perspective. This story
is in Japanese with subtitles, a minor issue in the world of the
deaf. Chieko, played by Rinko Kikuchi, has trouble communicating
on many levels: she can't communicate emotionally with her father,
she can't communicate desire to teenage boys who are turned off
by her deafness, she can't communicate with a hearing world. Throughout
her story, she uses many devices to communicate: signing, lip-reading,
text messaging, writing notes in a small pad she keeps handy - emphasizing
the fact that there are many ways to communicate, all of which can
Finally, even though the different stories take place in different
languages with English subtitles for Spanish, Arabic (I think),
and Japanese at different points - we have no problem understanding
and identifying with the stories. Who hasn't been angry with a sibling
and threatened to tell on them? Who hasn't felt estranged from a
loved one and longed to connect? Who hasn't felt desperate trying
to find a babysitter? On and on the cultural differences are overridden
by the emotional similarities and the difficulty of expressing these
emotions that we all have.
And so much more
.I will see Babel again and
again, deciphering its many layers of meaning and comparing them
to my own obstacles in communicating.
Did you get all that?