Sunday, February 25, 2007

Best Picture Nominees Part V: Babel

[rate 3.5]

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Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel is sort of an anti-Crash. Where Crash (last year's Best Picture) focused on one city's pent-up hostility between people of different races, Babel shows how well-meaning people from different cultures can fail to communicate.

Babel, like Crash, follows several stories that are interconnected by one incident -- in this case, a shooting.

Story one is about a Moroccan family that recently received a rifle from a grateful Japanese hunter (played by Koji Yakusho). The father gives his two boys (played by Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid) about a 5 minute lesson in target shooting, and then sends them to protect the family's heard of goats. Bored, the two boys decide to test the rifle's range and shoot at a tour bus passing by.

Story two is about an American couple (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), who apparently lost an infant recently and have been having problems dealing with the loss. They decide to get away for a while, and for some strange reason chose the Moroccan desert as their destination. While on a bus tour (are you getting the connection yet?), the woman is shot through the window. The trouble is that the nearest hospital is four hours away.

Story three is about the American couple's housekeeper (played by Adriana Barraza), who is unable to find someone to watch the couple's two children (while the couple deals with the shooting), decides to take them to Mexico for her son's wedding. Upon trying to return to the U.S., her intoxicated nephew driving, they have a run-in with the border patrol.

Story four is about the deaf daughter (played by Rinko Kikuchi) of the Japanese hunter. Troubled by her mother's suicide, and filled with teen angst, she roams around Tokyo looking for something to ease the pain -- and for her first sexual experience.

Babel is a completely believable study in misunderstanding and culture clash. As an American, I can understand how nightmarish it would be to be stuck in a foreign country, unable to speak the language, and my wife is injured. Even when the locals try their best to help, and they do try, it doesn't take away the frustration.

The same goes for the housekeeper's plight at the border. She wasn't trying to do anything wrong; she's lived in the U.S. for 15 years, and was returning. But her nephew, drunk and arrogant, made misunderstanding inevitable.

Babel's greatest strength is realism. Each culture is captured in all its beauty and ugliness, down to the smallest detail.

But realism is also its weakness. While there were a few tense, dramatic moments, such as the shooting itself, most of the film went at a slow pace. Scenes tended to be long, with many moments not related to the story. This can be a powerful tool for character development, but if overdone, as I believe was the case here, it can take away from the drama.

I also found the story in Japan to be too disconnected from the plot. It would be interesting on its own, perhaps as a separate film, but its connection was in theme only, and that wasn't enough for me.

Overall, I'd classify Babel as well-crafted, but not entertaining per se. It's more like watching a tragedy on cable news, seeing every possible angle of a story -- who was shot, the victim's family, the shooter and his family, and they guy that originally owned the gun. -- no matter how distant the relation.