Sunday, October 7, 2007
A thousand ways NOT to connect (Film - Babel)
We borrowed Babel from the library, as we had never seen it in the theater when it was released. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal are the familiar faces in it. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directed, Guillermo Arriaga wrote the script - they are probably best known in commercial feature films for Amores Perros. The plot of the film is almost immaterial, it's set in Morroco where a privileged American couple have come without their young children to get away. The wife is shot and they cannot return as planned. The children are in San Diego in the care of their devoted Mexican housekeeper. She is supposed to attend her son's wedding in Mexico and is compelled to take the children with her when she cannot find anyone to care for them. The gun by which the American woman was shot was given to a Moroccan who served as guide for a Japanese hunter. His story, and that of his deaf adolescent daughter, forms the third panel in this triptych of parallel but linked stories.
The central idea is a good one. The film takes its title from the biblical story in which the people try to build a tower to heaven to unite humanity but god thwarts them by confusing their formerly shared language so that they can no longer understand one another. Hmmm. No wonder. Anyway, in the film people from different cultures and with different languages desperately need something from each other. The Japanese girl needs love following the death of her mother, the Mexican nanny needs to cross the border, Brad Pitt's character needs help for his wife, but the people from whom they need this help don't communicate as they do - they don't share their values, their goals, or their languages and so conflict ensues and you have drama.
The film strains a little for a sense of profundity it cannot muster, but when it doesn't pretend, it becomes compelling. I particularly enjoyed the clear work of Adriana Barraza as Amelia, the nanny, all the Japanese young people in the film, whether deaf or hearing were wonderful - it is so rare to see kids act like kids in film. For once, Brad Pitt is cast to act a character to whom something actually happens. If he had been asked to do this a bit more often, he might be further along in his ability to act. He seemed to revel in the fact that he was playing a middle aged man. His beard and hair spotted with gray and with make-up assisted wrinkles beneath his eyes, the film seemed interested in paying attention to what he was doing instead of what he looked like and so he was forced to communicate more than a general sense. He is an actor who works with a tremendous amount of tension. He always seems to want to be feeling more than he is - to let you know he's doing his job. He really almost ruined 12 Monkeys (a terrific Terry Gilliam film) that way. He played a crazy character and just couldn't stop telling us he was CRAZY. I get it Brad. He did that a lot in Babel too at the beginning, but as his character must settle down and wait, and since he got to do that with Cate Blanchett and Mohamed Akhzam - two actors who are relaxed enough to inhabit a space and do only what is necessary, not what is interesting - he was actually forced to do the same sometimes. And in that space things bubbled up for him. It must be way more interesting that the other stuff he does, so I hope he does some more of it.
I appreciated the breathless paced, hi-tech style of the film - the crystaline photography, the incredibly disparate settings, the sound track had some good stuff in it. There were many scenes depicting the press and tumult of a life, whether in downtown Tokyo or on the highway to Tijuana, or on bus in Morocco - the tourists seemed to bustle through the slow dusty lives of the place they toured through. Never needing to touch or be touched by the people they photographed. They could even order their cous-cous in English. People in this film generally live in the close proximity of many others and yet few of them ever connect. All live parallel existences to one another and yet, when speaking, usually speak only from their own needs never another's. With an abundance of ways to communicate, this film seems to say - visual and auditory languages, technological devices, government functionaries whose sole purpose is the bridging of cultures - we seem only to have found a thousand ways not to connect.