Wednesday, January 31, 2007


The Book of Genesis has been crowbarred into a couple of high-profile cinema releases of late. In Darren Aronofsky's 'The Fountain', we were reminded of the story of Adam and Eve, but with an eye on a relatively under-publicised aspect of that story, namely the Tree of Life. In 'Babel', Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's third major feature film, we are reminded of the story of the mythical Tower of Babel.

Just in case you've lived under a large rock all your life, the parable of the tower of babel tells of an ancient time when the peoples of the earth all worked together to build a tower so tall that it would reach the skies, and man could be closer to God. When God saw what man was striving for, he became angry. His punishment for man's endeavour was to scatter the population across the world, and create the barrier of language, so as to divide men, and forever prevent them from working together in such a unified manner again.

Inarritu's movie is different from The Fountain, in that it does not include, or even refer to, to the bible story in question. Rather, the stories being told here relate to the theme of communication difficulties, and the problems faced by people in simply trying to cope with themselves and each other, often against the backdrop of a foreign or alien setting.

Inarritu is a firm believer in the Neapolitan Ice-cream art of film-making. That is, rather than focus on one straight-forward flavour or story, and exploit it to it's fullest, he tends to include three different stories for the delectation of the audience. This is an innovative approach to film-making and a formula that Hollywood has taken to it's collective bosom of late, with 'vignette movies' such as 'Crash' and more recently 'Bobby' rapidly becoming the new vogue in Tinseltown, and proving popular with audiences to boot.

In Inarritu's movies, common themes run through each of the three stories, but there is also a pivotal plot point where the three stories intertwine and influence each other. This plot point is in reality, often quite straight-forward. For example, in 'Amores Perros', the movie that attracted Hollywood to Inarritu's door, the device was dogs. In the (ironically) extremely heavy '21 Grams', the linking point was a heart transplant operation. In 'Babel' it is a rifle. However, even if the linkage device is straight-forward, it is in the exposition of the narrative, and the revelation of this device, where Inarritu employs his full bag of creative tricks.

To labour the Neapolitan metaphor a little, there is a problem with this type of ice cream: everyone has a favourite. The result of this is that the other two flavours become a little devalued, and we wonder why we didn't just buy strawberry ice cream in the first place. Specialise or diversify... it's a difficult one to answer. In 'Babel', the best story for me is the one set in Japan, where Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a hearing-impaired teenager whose mother has recently died. Like any teenager, she's moody, and has problems communicating, but her handicap makes it more difficult to talk to boys her age, and this frustrates her even further. Her story is set against the backdrop of urban Japanese teenagers though, and it's fascinating to look through Inarritu's window into a world that is so foreign to our own. 'Lost in Translation' also played with this device, employing Japanese culture almost as an ominous supporting character in the movie.

The vanilla story - i.e. good, but not the best - is the one with the most recognisable faces. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are a married couple on holiday in Morocco, and their marriage is obviously on the rocks. Meanwhile, a moroccan rural family purchase a rifle with which to keep jackals away from their goat herds, and the two young boys of the family are given responsibility for the weapon. When they test the rifle's range, they manage to hit Cate Blanchett, and this is the trigger moment for the three layers of the story to gradually melt into each other.

Finally, the chocolate story, or the one I would rank the lowest. A child-minder for a wealthy American family (Brad and Cate) is charged with looking after the two kids on her day off, but she also has to attend her son's wedding across the border in Mexico. In what proves to be the first of many bad decisions, she opts to take the kids with her across the border. Essentially, she has a pretty bad day after that, and this story is by a long way the weakest of the three.

Brad Pitt is very good in Babel, portraying his gradually increasing desperation and isolation very well. There are some nice moments where he befriends a Moroccan man, and they find they have quite a lot in common, despite his surroundings appearing so alien to our Brad. Cate Blanchett, unfortunately, is completely wasted in this movie. She has two scenes involving anything other than writhing in pain or screaming in pain, but, as you'd expect, she is excellent for those couple of minutes at least. The effect of the gunshot on the Moroccan family is more dramatic than the effect on Brad and Cate however, and this storyline is also well played out. The younger of the two brothers in particular is a great little character.

However, as with the strawberry part of the Neapolitan, I found that when I was watching my favourite - the Japanese story - I lost interest in the other two sections. Someone made the point to me recently that subtitled movies sometimes gain an extra layer of gravitas, simply thanks to the fact that they are in the foreign language. The character of the fawn in 'Pan's Labyrinth' is a great example of this. Would he be quite as interesting a character, or quite as threatening if he was speaking in English? It's difficult to say, but it's curious to me that the Japanese story the Moroccan family's story in 'Babel' and were the ones that held my attention the most, and both of these were in foreign languages.

Babel is a meandering, expansive tale that in the end, doesn't draw any big, important conclusions. However, it is at least a thought-provoking, well-crafted story, and definitely worthy of two hours of your time. Innaritu's critics may say that with the triple narrative device, he's becoming a one-trick-pony at this stage, but at least in this he has chosen to specialise, and focus on what he does best.

It is worth seeing Babel, because there aren't enough large-scale productions made with this level of thought and ambition. And who knows, come Oscar night it may follow in the footsteps of last year's bg vignette movie, Crash, and pick up the best picture Oscar gong. (Although PCMR's money is on Clint Eastwood's Japanese war movie: 'Letters from Iwo Jima')

The verdict: Intelligent and well-made, with a very self-important title, but no mind-blowing conclusions to draw.
The rating: 7/10

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