I wish I had been able to see this epic film — whose partisans have put it up for Best Picture and who detractors have branded it “Crash International” — in theaters. It’s an epic tale, and beautifully shot. But I avoided it until now, not because of all the subtitles, but because I knew the story it tells is depressing.
As you probably will know by the end of Oscar night tonight if you didn’t already, Babel tells several loosely-connected stories in several languages with a non-linear narrative structure, which is a fancy way of saying it’s a fancy movie. For how big and sprawling it is, it also manages to narrow in on the characters in a wonderfully human way.
Detractors be damned, I loved it. There is a lot that is aggravating in how the mis-communications of the film concatenate. You want to reach out and shake the characters and tell them to tell the truth and be articulate. But their actions are honest enough to human nature: two boys playing with a rifle in Morocco accidentally shoot a tourist and are afraid to come clean as the American government over-reacts; a Mexican immigrant with a previous DUI arrest decides to take his chances in a high-speed chase rather than with border agents; a deaf-mute teen in a society that shuns deformity seeks proof of acceptance through sexuality. The movie is painful, but also startling and beautiful. One scene — between the two most recognizable stars in the film (though the most un-regonized in year-end awards nominations), Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett — is perhaps one of the most intimate and real moments I have ever seen on film. Let’s just say that I hadn’t realized an expression of true love could involve a bedpan.
On a symbolic level, even beyond the ironies of contemporary global politics that Babel takes for given, this film tells the story of human connection and disconnection. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction is masterful; Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay is brilliant in its complex simplicity; Santoalalla’s score is haunting. The performances are universally outstanding and the sheer international nature of the story makes the production a great achievement. Though it would seem to be Martin Scorsese’s year, I will not be surprised if Babel pulls the same trick Crash did and wins. It is a great film, and worthy of the moniker Best Picture.
UPDATE: It didn’t win Best Picture, The Departed did. Which is fine, because I really loved that movie too.