While I am not exactly sure why I did not bother seeing Babel when it first came to theatres, I do know that I kicked myself after it started picking up awards and nominations with some of the bigger critical societies. It looked good, but it also looked off. After the Oscar nominations were announced, I knew I had to make a point of finally seeing the film before the big night. And despite my excitement over finally seeing the movie, I am still a bit mixed in my feelings about it.
Spanning four stories in four very different countries, Babel is connected by a single gun shot. In Morocco, Yusef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani) have just been given a new rifle to help kill jackals praying on their families goats. In trying to understand the weapons firing capabilities, they innocently shoot at a tour bus. On that bus, American tourist Susan (Cate Blanchett) is hit by the bullet and injured. Her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) attempts to get help for her, while in America, their nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is watching their kids, but wants to go to her son's wedding in Mexico. Finally, in Japan, schoolgirl Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) wants attention from men, but unfortunately is a deaf mute.
In a word, Babel is spellbinding. It is hard to take your eyes off of the screen at any moment during the film, and as it continues to go on, it only draws you in more and more. The global spanning story with the various languages is just a marvel to witness in action. But despite it being gorgeously photographed and brought to the screen, the film has a few issues that hold it back from being a true masterpiece.
For one, the Japanese story just feels totally out of place. Whereas the other three stories are deeply interwoven within each other, allowing every scene to just flow into the next (in a totally non-linear sense), this story just kind of sits on the sidelines. Yes, it is connected to the greater story of the gun shot, but only by the loosest of threads. It is an interesting part of the complete story, but really, was there a better way to fill in the gaps between the other three stories? It has the most elaborate backgrounds in the film, the most music and undoubtedly the best performance, but it just feels awkward in the grand scheme of things.
Another smaller issue is the time line. At times, it is a bit hard to follow how many days have progressed since the incident, and by the time you finally are told just how long it has been, it becomes a little ridiculous trying to think it all out. The non-linear story does not help much either.
The story itself feels a little convoluted in sections. For the most part, I thought it was very well done, and very well brought to life on screen. But in a few instances, I sat in a bit of a daze, wondering whether they needed some of the extra sequences that they had. An early sequence in the Moroccan kid's story involves heavy sexual overtones. But later, they really do not rate anything more than a mention. A lot of the subplots like this just feel kind of tacked on, and never are really concluded as well as they should have been. Yes, I know that they have no real importance, but then why are they included here in the first place? They easily could have trimmed down the movie by a good handful of minutes by trimming some, if not all, of these subplots out. The movie's ultimate message and key story would still be in place, so I really do not understand why this could not have been done.
The majority of the performances are all excellent. I was very impressed with El Caid and Tarchani as the Moroccan boys who set everything in motion. Their innocence and genuine fear are miraculously captured, and are so better done than the majority of child actors working today. Barraza also does very well for herself as the guilt-ridden nanny. As her story goes on, the desperation that plagues her is slowly let on, and the character slowly slips into just the right amount of panic. Just seeing how low this character gets is well worth her Oscar nomination. On the other hand, Pitt and Blanchett have both been much stronger in other films. Yes, they do more than an adequate job here (especially Pitt in his waning moments on screen), but I would be lying if I said that they have other entries in their bodies of work that far surpass this. Same goes for Gael Garcia Bernal, who like the subplots, just feels tacked on and not really developed as much of anything.
Kukuchi is the real star power of this film. Her tragic performance of the deaf Japanese schoolgirl is simply astonishing. She really digs deep into this character, and the audience really gets a grand sense of the pain that these people go through every day. Just watching as she is socially rejected by everyone is just heart wrenching and so intense to watch. These scenes, needed or not, are gritty and bring a whole new sense to the film. I just wish that the filmmakers could have put her character in a much more useful position in the film.
On the whole, Babel is flawed, but is a genuine experience to watch. Globalization has never been as key to a film as it is here. Despite its issues and lengthiness, you will be hard-set on taking your eyes off of the action taking place on screen. It is not perfect, but for what it sets out to do, it does more than an admirable job.
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