Sunday, November 12, 2006

Babel


Weaving together interlocking stories is a challenge taken on by many directors, but successfully conquered by very few.

Robert Altman, of course, is the master. Every time I again watch how many disparate characters he tied together in "Nashville" I just have to marvel.

Others have been less fortunate. Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" was, to me, a noble failure at best, and Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana" was just a mess.

Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (and, lest he hunt me down and smite me for omitting him, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga) come much closer to the former rather than the latter by wisely choosing only three stories in "Babel," and creating tension throughout by getting us heavily invested in their outcomes.

The three stories presented are deceptively simple. In one an American couple are on vacation in Morocco when the wife (Cate Blanchett) becomes injured in what quickly develops into an international incident. The second involves a Mexican housekeeper/nanny who, in order to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, takes the two American children she is charged with caring for with her. And the third, and by far most powerful for me, is about a deaf-mute Japanese teenager named Chieko (a simply amazing Rinko Kikuchi).

Inarritu uses sounds as much as sights to keep the tension high as the three stories unfold. From the opening sound of an elderly Moroccan man rapping on the metal door of a neighbor's house, each echo just builds the sense of impending violence and doom.

And two sights in particular stand out more than almost anything I've seen this year. The first is the Mexican wedding, which engages us with its sense of pure joy, with a large dose of help from a small turn from a mischievous Gael Garcia Bernal.

The second and even better sequence comes when Chieko and her friends are lured out for a night on the town by some young cats who are pitching woo. Tokyo is a feast for the senses, and as you watch the action unfold at a discotheque, sometimes from the view of young Chieko, you'll realize that Sofia Coppola just scratched the surface with "Lost in Translation." It's the best large-crowd sequence I've seen since the street party in "City of God," and it's simply a stunner.

What also draws us into these three stories are two truly compelling performances. The first, by Adriana Bazzara as the nanny Amelia, is deceptively laid back until she's pushed to the brink along the U.S.-Mexico border, and she takes you right along with her so well that it can be uncomfortable to watch.

The second was by young Rinko Kikuchi who, without saying a word, makes you feel for this girl who has more issues to deal with than many of us will confront in our entire lifetime. I hate to keep using words like "amazing," but I just can't help it. If there's any justice, you will get to hear her speak on Oscar night, most likely in the category of supporting actress.

And the A-listers, Brad and Cate? They do fine, but are given the least to work with. Brad in particular gets stronger as the movie goes on.

Without giving away at all how all this ends, I'll just say that this movie was superior for me to the two previous Inarritu-Arriaga collaborations, "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," because with all this misery there is a welcome glimmer of hope.

What they've made here, without offering any simple solutions, is an extremely entertaining treatise on our failure, on a global scale, to communicate.

As we were driving home, I couldn't help but think about the fallout between Inarritu and Arriaga, aired in the New York Times, which could lead to their own communication breakdown and the end to their working together on these great movies. Now that would be truly tragic.

14 comments:

a rose is a rose said...

robert altman is my all time favorite AMERICAN director. he is a master.

(by the way i thought i was the only one that didn't care too much for traffic. nice to know someone else felt the same)


(oh an fellini is my favorite director in the universe)

Dees Stribling said...

It was nice of you to comment on my site the other day about Borat, which I might actually see in the theater on the strength of recommendations like yours.

A fine site you have here - I plan to read more of it.

Bondwalker said...

Pleeease tell me you've seen "amores perros" (love's a bitch) also by IƱarritu... If you haven't, rent it NOW. You'll like it :)

Anonymous said...

it sounds like you did enjoy the film.. and i'm glad you mentioned the use of sound/music (and lack thereof) in this film.. it was used in a pretty powerful way, letting it create emotion and tension instead of using a more complicated means to the same end.. this is a great review of the movie.. i look forward to reading more..

Reel Fanatic said...

Thanks, Dees .. as I said, go into Borat prepared to be offended, but also prepared to laugh a lot

Bondwalker said...

ahem.. sorry.. I should learn to post AFTER reading the whole post haha. I haven't seen Babel yet, but believe me ,I'm eager to.

Ian said...

Nice review! Personally I thought the Tokyo scene was just TOO long and overly self-indulgent, but that's a minor blemish on a film that was as powerful and moving as this. Great performances from everyone - from the very young kids who had to give convincing performances of some difficult emotional scenes all the way up to Pitt and Blanchette.

Divinity said...

How about Crash for storyline weaving? Mind you, it was more like transitions but I thought Haggis' script was impressive and clever.
I try not to hit more than one "intense" film per two weeks. The Last King of Scotland will probably be my choice this week. I'll wait for the lines at Babel to thin a bit.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'm probably gonna draw fire for this, Divinity, but I simply didn't like Crash much at all ... for all its supposed insight, for me the script didn't add up to much to more than Rodney King's declaration of "Can't we all just get all along?" .. But hopefully we can just civilly disagree on that one

Anonymous said...

I've always loved movies with interlocking stories such as Robert Altman does. The problem is that Robert Altman seems to be the only director who seems capable of pulling them off. Like you I thought Traffic was a noble failure. As to Crash, I haven't seen it yet, but my best friend (whose tastes are close to mine) thought it was very shallow and disappointing. It's good to see there is another director out there who, like Altman, can make films with interlocking stories that are actually very good.

Of course, while I am here, I might as well take my hat off to the late, great Jack Palance who just died Friday. To absent friends.

Reel Fanatic said...

Jack Palance, Mercurie, will indeed be sorely missed .. I would have written him a proper eulogy, but he just happened to die just when I hit review mode rather than news mode

Divinity said...

(hiding in my Crash friendly zone);P
I've found by questioning friends who have seen it that those who believe the coroner knew what she was buying liked the film and those who don't believe she did, don't like the film. It's the only consistant thread I've found so far. But you're right: Let's just get along.

carrie_lofty said...

Better than 21 Grams? I'm there.

Reel Fanatic said...

It definitely is, Salome, but not by much, because I think 21 Grams is simply an amazing flick too