Saturday, January 03, 2009

Babel

I'm going to stick my neck out and say I'm one of the few reviewers who thinks that Babel is superbly-acted tosh.
Now I have to admit that I watched it without subtitles - for some reason it didn't occur to whoever put the DVD together to include subtitles for the scenes that aren't in English (75% of the movie, roughly). It was only after the movie was finished that we discovered we could have had subtitles running; we'd thought - considering the title - that not knowing what the characters were saying most of the time was part of the director's intention.
But probably not. Consequently we spent most of the film wondering what on earth the Japanese girl's section (which is quite substantial) had to to do with the rest of the movie. In fact it has so little to do with the rest of the movie that it could have been dropped without missing a beat - also reducing the lengthy running time considerably.
Alejandro González Iñárritu has apparently made two movies with a similar structure before Babel. Good on him. My suspicion is that the only reason this one has gained some fame is that it has Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in it. Neither of them are required to do much in the way of character building, but they nevertheless invest a couple of fairly undistinguised characters with far more depth than they deserve. They're also part of the film in which chronology is most dislocated. We know Blanchett is going to be shot before it happens, and we know Pitt will have a conversation with his son - because we've already seen it from a different angle. The only thing is that this conversation makes no sense because when we saw it at the beginning of the film the nanny was part of it; yet supposedly she's been dismissed by this stage. Maybe the subtitles will help - but do I want to sit through 140 minutes of movie again just to make sense of a few subtleties?
It's interesting that we picked up most of what was happening without subtitles. That's a credit to the actors primarily - and this film is full of wonderful acting. Quite apart from Pitt and Blanchett, there are superb performances from the Moroccan and Japanese casts - I can't name names, because I never quite figured the names of the characters in these sections, but Adriana Barazza does the Mexican middle-aged nanny very well.
Quite honestly I'm not sure what point the film is trying to make. Linking the stories with the rifle says something about how we affect each other's lives, but the stories themselves don't have any great connections, most particularly the Japanese one, which seems primarily a picture of the dreadfully amoral ennui that affects a certain class of Japanese young people. The Moroccan sequence is just a tragedy, but the Americans' link to it is fairly tenuous. And the Mexican one, caused in part by the American couple's getting stuck in Morocco, is again only tenuous in its connections.
Peter Bradshaw also stuck his neck out and dismissed the film's pretentions as art. Here's part of his review
There are some films that arrive here from the international festival circuit almost incandescent with self-importance. They hover into the cinema in a kind of floating trance at how challenging and moving they are. They are films with a profound reluctance to get over themselves. One such is Babel, the exasperatingly conceited new film from Alejandro González Iñárritu. It is well acted and handsomely photographed, but still extraordinarily overpraised and overblown, a middlebrow piece of near-nonsense: the kind of self-conscious arthouse cinema that is custom-tailored and machine-tooled for the dinner-party demographic. The script is contrived, shallow, unconvincing and rendered absurd and almost meaningless by a plot naivety that is impossible to ignore once its full magnitude dawns on you.
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