Last year’s everyone’s favourite movie – a winner of many awards, nominated for dozens more, is Babel really that good? We’ve had our share of undeserved award-hype in the past – Brokeback Mountain, Shakespeare in Love, so does Babel fill the same over-hyped shoes, or is it actually worth watching? Well, if you are not intimidated by subtitles, huge cast and intertwining plot lines – you will enjoy this film. The imagery and morals might be a little too heavy, but then again, a project that spans multiple cultures and languages will not translate as poetically as intended. Babel is heavy, but so are its themes. Last year’s Crash is very similar – it touched on subjects that are very difficult to resolve – only illuminate. And it’s during that illumination that you start seeing people in the audience disagree. But, at least they’re talking about something of substance. As opposed to say “The Devil Wears Prada” – an entertaining and moving film about nothing.
Babel came to Toronto Film Fest in 2006, and a friend of mine who was lucky enough to get tickets came back with a heavy heart. He said “you feel bad for these people, you sympathize with their lives, but the movie doesn’t really make anything better for anyone. Maybe that’s the whole point, but I was physically drained and depressed after that film”. I somewhat agree. We got so used to happy endings – even in semi-serious films – that when something really depressing comes along (and doesn’t bother to resolve many issues and troubles) we react with a knee-jerk.
Babel is about many characters, whose lives intertwine in three different plots, using many different themes. There’s a middle-age couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) who are going through difficult times and decide to take some time off, in a place as far away from home as possible. They journey to Morocco, trying to rekindle their relationship, rebuild what was lost. They get a perfect opportunity to do so as a stray bullet accidentally hits Cate in the shoulder, and Brad needs to choose between his comfort level (to force the entire tour group to stay behind waiting for a doctor in the middle of mountain ridges) or his wife’s health (stay behind just the two of them, trusting their lives to a guide who can hardly speak English – again, in the middle of a foreign country).
Then there’s a story involving their children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) who stay behind with a babysitter (Adriana Barraza) who needs to attend her son’s wedding. So, instead of leaving them with another babysitter, she takes them across the border from L.A. to Mexico, naturally, without proper documents, and naturally, with a hothead nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal). Suffice to say the designated driver gets a little too drunk to bring everybody back home safely.
Finally, the third plot line takes place in Japan, and the only thing connecting it to the rest of the movie is a gun that ultimately sends a stray bullet into an American tourist in African country. This one was the weakest stories in the film, yet easily, very moving and engaging. So many people, dealing with so much tragedy, coping either in a strange language, or with strange people – the themes are nearly identical throughout.
What director Alejandro Gonzalez Ia¡rritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga are trying to do is join these random events into a single theme. Sometimes it works – the couple stranded in the Moroccan mountains at some point no longer need a translator – their despair and anger is universal. In other scenes – it’s just gut-wrenching. The two little kids lost in a Mexican desert after a wild night – that was imposed on them (and could have been prevented) – is manipulative. Although you identify with their fears, you can’t believe that adults around them were capable of making those series of decisions to get to this desperate point. It’s not realistic. On the other hand, the deaf-mute Japanese teenage girl, acting up because of her family issues – is more believable, even though this entire story is very removed from the rest of the film.
Babel would make a fascinating TV drama – I loved the constant mix of languages, cultures and locales. However, its stories are not of equal importance, and yet they seem to get equal screen time. I cared very much for drama in Morocco, was engaged with the children in Mexico, and kept asking “how does this relate” to the plot in Japan. There’s a great 90-100 minutes in there. Unfortunately, the film is much longer, and keeps adding more characters as is plugs along. You don’t want this stuff to be cut in the editing room, you just need time to absorb it. It’s an ambitious project that has a point to make, and keeps making it again and again, with diminishing effect.
I hope there’s a version of it on TV some day. Lost (on ABC) once promised to be like that, but it’s nowhere near the quality of writing and variety of cultures and languages. Writers, better take notes on this.