Babel (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
Mixed vibes from us for the Golden Globe's Best Picture. Scoop thought it was a powerful film, even a brilliant one. Tuna only found one of the storylines engaging, and his overall reaction was tepid.
Alejandro González Iñárritu burst onto the film scene in 2000 with a remarkably well crafted Spanish language feature called Amores Perros, which was nominated for the Oscar as the best foreign language film. The basic theme of the film was that:
Having received so much positive feedback for his debut, he decided to expand his theme to a larger stage, and directed 21 Grams for the larger English-language audience, this time positing that everyone's lives in all of America are intricately interconnected, and that they also suck. In fact the American lives pictured in 21 Grams sucked even worse than the Mexican lives in Amores Perros. Oh, I'm using litotes. Let be be more direct. The American lives in 21 Grams sucked worse than the lives in Requiem for a Dream. But Iñárritu had even bigger dreams. In this third film, Babel, he has expanded his vision to the ultimate stage, and now posits that everyone's life in the world is interwoven with everyone else's and (all together now) everyone's life really sucks.
Man, what a fun guy Iñárritu must be, huh? I gotta get me down to Mexico City and party with that cowboy!
I just hope they don't let him direct the Fantastic Four film, because you just know that Galactus will win, and eat Earth, but then the mighty Galactus will be unable to digest earth, and will die, and the energy shift caused by this cataclysm will generate a massive simultaneous aftershock in the entire universe, which will mean that every life in the universe will be interconnected, and will suck worse than a Pauly Shore film retrospective.
To be fair, Iñárritu has grown up a lot since 21 Grams. That film, one of the most depressing ever made, is nothing more than a sequence of completely unbelievable contrivances and coincidences which force the point about interconnectedness and just plain pile on the melodrama for the sake of making the film as bleak as possible. It was pitched at the NYU student film level of self-important and self-indulgent tragedy-wallowing. Babel is a much more sophisticated work. In fact, the film is not based on preposterous coincidences, but on an illustration of how lives really are interrelated. The connections are completely plausible. A Japanese hunter in North Africa is so pleased with his guide that he rewards him with a high-powered rifle. Some time later, the guide trades the rifle to a goat herder who needs it to protect his flock from predators. The goat herder's young sons test the purported long range of the rifle, and end up wounding an American on a tourist bus. Because the American woman is bleeding to death in a Moroccan village, the couple cannot return to America as planned, and their Mexican nanny has to watch their children for an unscheduled period. Since the nanny, an undocumented alien, is supposed to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, she takes the children with her, ultimately causing major problems when she tries to re-enter the States. All of that could really happen. The politics are also reasonable, reflecting the kind of real problems the couple would face in Morocco and their nanny would face on the Mexican border. The story in Japan is not closely connected to the rest of the characters, and the tragedy of the main character in Japan is completely unrelated to the fact that her father gave the rifle to the guy in Morocco, but I view that as a plus in the script. Instead of going for an incredible contrivance as they might have in their previous scripts, the co-authors simply showed that there was a completely logical connection between the lives portrayed on screen, and they demonstrated that our actions may have echoes which reverberate far away.
Iñárritu not only took care to make the scenarios plausible, but he also let each plot develop in a sensible way. Although each major character goes through a crisis, making this an intense and often very depressing film, the crises do not all end with the melodramatic gnashing of teeth. Some of the character's lives end in total tragedy, some situations turn for the worse, some come to satisfactory resolutions, and some are unresolved. It works out the way life itself works out. That's a major improvement over the gloomy and artificial non-stop hand-wringing in 21 Grams.
Amazingly enough, some critics actually faulted Babel for not being depressing and fatalistic enough, for "selling out" by letting some characters off the hook without coming to either death or life-shattering tragedies. I offer this once again as proof of Scoop's Prime Theorem, which states that no matter how ludicrous an opinion is, somebody somewhere holds it anyway.
Given the new, more nuanced scripting, the complex narrative, the heavy themes, and the complete command of mood which Iñárritu exercises with the images and music of three continents, Babel is a powerful film and can fairly be called a masterpiece, as well as a genuine work of art. He has demonstrated that he's one of the world's best filmmakers. Because of the presence of some big stars like Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, it is one of the very few arthouse films which might attract enough attention to earn a best picture nomination at Oscar time. (Post facto note: It did.) It was nominated for seven Golden Globes, including Best Picture, which it won in an upset. But be forewarned, it is intense and nerve-shattering, and is a complete feel-bad film through most of its running time, although it does offer most of its characters some hope at the end.
Babel is the third in a dramatic trilogy from Alejandro González Iñárritu. Both "Amores perros" and "21 Grams" were received well, but Babel has outshined both and created lots of buzz. It won the "Best Picture - Drama" award at the Golden Globes, then merited seven Oscar nominations, including a coveted nomination as the best picture of the year.
As the film opens, an American couple is spending time together in Morocco on a vacation designed to help to patch up a marriage. Back home, an illegal Mexican woman takes care of their two kids. While the Americans ride a bus through the Moroccan desert, two young Moroccan shepherds test out a rifle they received from from their father by firing it at a distant tourist bus. They hit the American woman in the shoulder. The American government immediately blames the incident on terrorism, so politics gets in the way of a proper medical response, and she gets no medical care except what a veterinarian can provide in a small town. Meanwhile, the Mexican housekeeper takes the kids into Mexico to see her son married. On the way back, her nephew gets surly with the border guards and then runs the border crossing, and dumps her and the kids in the desert. We also follow the story of a young Japanese girl, who is deaf, and whose mother committed suicide. She feels unloved, and tries to seduce a police officer. Her father, it turns out, gave a rifle to a hunting guide in Morocco, who sold it to the family that shot the American woman.
The film manages hopeful endings for all but one of the two boys who fired the gun.
When I evaluate a film, I ask myself if the story was well told, and if it was worth telling. I have some problems with both questions in this case.
First question: Was the story worth telling? The theme of this film is that we are all interconnected, and that, because of that, the smallest action can have broad and unpredictable consequences. This is not an original idea, and only one of the main story lines was compelling.
As to the other question, which asks whether the story was told well, the essence of my answer is that I noticed the narrative style much too frequently, to the point where the technique, instead of enhancing the narrative, became a greater portion of the film's focus than the narrative itself. Iñárritu switched time frames and locations seemingly without reason, which I found very distracting. There were also pace issues, with some scenes going on far too long after they had made their point. Even the plot line I did enjoy was not without problems. There is a scene where the girl drinks some whiskey, pops a pill, and goes to a disco. We then get what seems like hours of flashing disco lights, with the audio being turned off then on in an attempt to show disco through her point of view. I got it the first time, and didn't need the other 20. It would have been easily possible to use a linear time frame to tell these stories, so the convoluted narrative style wasn't necessary, and I don't see how it improved the film. Unfortunately, the DVD is bare-bones and lacks a commentary, so I have no idea why the structure was chosen. If the plan was to make a simple story complex with a contrived narrative structure, then it was very well done, because by the end of the film, you can place every puzzle piece into its correct location.
I expect a drama to show me something about myself, or other people. In the Japanese section, it did that. Other than some scenes going on much longer than necessary, I enjoyed Babel whenever it was in Japan, although that segment had only a very tangential relationship to the rest of the characters. While Babel is not a film that I will be in a hurry to watch again, the Japanese segment did eventually draw me in, and the film was ultimately not a waste of my time.
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