Babel: Quick and Dirty Review (Without Many Translation Difficulties)

Another day, another movie. The Wife decided last night to go out and rent Babel, which both she and I had been wanting to watch ever since it was in theaters. (I’ll use the fashionable “we didn’t have time” as my excuse for not having seen it then. Actually, it was because this hermit-apparent hadn’t even heard of it until it came out on video.) The film is just over two hours long, so as you can guess, it took up a large part of our evening, one where I had expected to clean my car and spend some time at a not-so-local bookstore. Was it worth it?

Genesis 11:9Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Babel tells the story of four separate events. One involves two Arab kids who end up shooting someone with their dad’s gun, not quite by accident, but not on purpose, either. The second involves the story of a couple who’s on vacation, trying to settle some marital difficulties. The third involves a deaf Japanese girl who’s father is being sought by the police for questioning. The fourth involves a Mexican nanny who’s been taking care of some American kids, and who wants to go to see her son’s wedding in Mexico, but is unable. The movie’s conflicts all revolve around language barriers, but emphasizes and explores how our actions can affect or be affected by others, no matter the distance or time between us, across the globe.

The film is shot in a very similar fashion to the first few episodes of the television series Lost, in that the events portrayed are disjointed and tell a story in a non-linear fashion. (I’m not talking here about jumping from one scene to another, but jumping back and forth between times as well as story lines: where an event you just saw may have happened days before the event you’re seeing now, and the next event presented may have happened before or between the events of those two scenes.) This type of story telling method is used extremely effectively in this film, and helps create a level of tension in the film which carries through to the last moments in a way that most suspense and action films dream of doing. Indeed, the film’s most tense moments had nothing to do with violence (which was almost nonexistent), but instead with how characters would act in certain situations, what choices they would make, and how those choices would affect how the film progresses, ends, and even how it starts, by changing your perception of everything you’ve just seen.

Babel is by far one of the most thought provoking films I’ve seen in years. It does a phenomenal job at taking the viewer on a tour through various points of view, and successfully gets the reader to care about and empathize (if not sympathize) with every major character in the movie by showing that things are not as black and white as they might seem when you distance yourself enough. As in real life, this film doesn’t easily distinguish between good and evil, or right and wrong. The closest thing to any sort of moral compass the film offers is between what might be foolish and what might not be, what might we wise and what may be simply serendipity, and how even good people with good intentions often make very foolish choices.

Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but think of something written by Anne Frank in her diary: “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Indeed, the belief that no one does evil believing what they are doing is evil is very prevalent in this film. This, however, makes the film a target for those who would think themselves wise by pronouncing that following one set of principles in some book or by adhering strictly to a particular belief system would have avoided all of this mess. While they may be right, and by following one strict set of guidelines many of these problems would have been avoided, the statement ignores the reality of human individuality and impetus (with an emphasis on “imp”) which moves every individual. Indeed, the ancient books of myth and the books of faith prevalent today all tell tales of human folly and foolishness, of strife, of growth, and ultimately redemption.

To whom would I recommend this film? Everyone whose brain and heart work, and who can step back from their own reality and look, with an open heart and without judgment, upon the various trials and tribulations of their fellow humans. I emphasize here the “without judgment” part, because it becomes very easy for a viewer with a very well developed moral compass but who is unable or unwilling to view people both as they are and as they see themselves, unable or unwilling to see their actions as they see their actions, and unable or unwilling to discard the extraneous information they’ve gained in order to see things as the characters see things to enjoy this film in a manner properly befitting the subject. Indeed, such person should avoid this and all films which successfully offer any form of moral ambiguity, for the sake of their own Socratic cave prison.

The Wife and I both agree that this film is one we’ll be adding to our collection, probably springing for whatever multi-DVD or extended edition is offered, since I’m a big fan of the documentaries and extra features. This is by far one of the best films I’ve seen in years and if you haven’t seen it yet, you owe yourself a night in which to watch it. The film contains some material which some may find objectionable (non-gratuitous nudity which actually moves the storyline, some light violence), but the film’s message is so strong that the decision to have kids under 16 watch it (with you, the adult) would be up to you. I don’t often call films “important”, but that label is certainly befitting Babel.

4 thoughts on “Babel: Quick and Dirty Review (Without Many Translation Difficulties)

  1. I agree with you, Babel is a great movie. My fiancé and I watched it at the cinemas and while it wasn’t his favourite movie, it was one of mine.

    I especially loved how all the stories came together in the end. I think that’s what made it a great movie. At least for me.

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