Thursday, October 05, 2006


i saw babel last night, a sneak preview i got through my membership in the philadelphia film society. i'm gonna try to write a review of it, but i'm not sure how to do it. the film is still bouncing around in head this morning. i don't know if i have settled into a coherent take on the movie yet. but here goes:

babel has four parallel storylines that take place on three different continents. one is about an american couple traveling in morocco, one about their children and their mexican housekeeper back in san diego and/or mexico, another about a poor moroccan family, and the fourth about a deaf japanese girl in tokyo. each of those four storylines are separate, but at key moments in the film, the characters in one storyline will effect the lives of characters in another storyline even though they never see each other or meet face-to-face at any point in the entire movie. aside from their effects on one another, the film draws numerous parallels between the different storylines. in all but one, the main character or characters are dealing with grief. all of the stories center on the family and the parent-child relationship. all of the stories involve a language barrier of one sort or another (thus the title of the film)--see below for more on that.

like alejandro gonzalez inarritu's previous films, amores perros and 21 grams, inarritu plays with the film's continuity. if viewed separately each of the four storylines has normal timeline--each runs from start to finish like a regular plot. but the film cuts back and forth between the different storylines. because of the points where the storylines intersect, it becomes clear that the different lines are not in sync with one another. so while the family in san diego gets a telephone call from morocco at the beginning of the movie, the call isn't made in the moroccan storyline until near the end of the film. news reports in japan reveal facts about morocco that haven't been revealed in the moroccan storyline because they hadn't happened yet.

while temporally the storylines are out of sync, they are edited together to draw thematic parallels. when something happens in one storyline, the film often cuts to a scene in another storyline with a parallel theme. so at one point each of the storylines shows us characters who are lost. at another point, someone in the various stories is intoxicated. in the absolute timeline of the film, these events in japan, morocco, the u.s. and mexico, take place at different times. but by editing the film to show these scenes along side one another the filmmaker underlines the connections between the characters, even if the characters themselves are not aware of the connection.

interconnectivity is an odd theme for a film called "babel." after all, the bible story is about the severing of people into separate nations, not common humanity. but communication difficulties is another theme that you see throughout the movie. except for the poor moroccan family, each of the main character deals with a language barrier with the people around them. and even though everything is connected, the characters are not always aware of the connection.

but "babel" is not just about the connections and communication problems, it's about how quick and often thoughtless decisions can have tragic and long-reaching consequences for other people. everything bad that happens in the movie is due to someone else's choices. some of the choices are stupid, but all are to some extent understandable. well, maybe not all of them are understandable--i'm thinking of the decision to shoot at a tour bus. but even that decision is at least mitigated by circumstances in some way. but those decisions--the understandable ones, the innocent ones, and the arguably mitigated ones--can turn out to be disastrous for its victims.

i was also interested in how governments were portrayed in the film. in some sense, the governments in the film are an extension of the miscommunication theme. when an american tourist is shot in morocco, the u.s. government is convinced that it is a terrorist attack. the moroccan government is just as insistent that it is not. each sees the attack through its own lens of expectations. as a result of the governments' bickering, no ambulance is sent for the shooting victim. whatever communication problems there are between the characters, the governments seem to have it worse.

there were some problems. i thought the end of the japanese storyline was a bit of a cop-out. and one of the characters is shown naked so often it starts seeming a little gratuitous. sometimes the symbolism was a little forced. the film seemed a little long. but all of these are fairly minor. i still recommend the film, even though i realize that if mrs. noz sees it, she may never agree to go to morocco with me.

anyway, i'm still mulling this one over, and that in itself is a sign of a strong film. inarritu was at the screening and mentioned that he considers "babel" to be the third film in a trilogy (with "amores perros" and "21 grams"). if nothing else, it made me want to go back and watch those earlier films again.