Babel (2006)

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Released 5-Jun-2007

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Theatrical Trailer
Featurette-Common Ground: Under Construction Notes
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 2006
Running Time 137:37
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Alejandro González Iñárritu
Studio
Distributor

Paramount Home Entertainment
Starring Brad Pitt
Cate Blanchett
Mohamed Akhzam
Peter Wight
Harriet Walter
Trevor Martin
Matyelok Gibbs
Georges Bousquet
Claudine Acs
André Oumansky
Michael Maloney
Dermot Crowley
Wendy Nottingham
Case Amaray-Transparent-S/C-Dual
RPI ? Music Gustavo Santaolalla


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

   

"Because there was a time a long time ago there was the city of Babylon. People in that time, everybody talked the same language so it wasn't English, Spanish or Japanese. You know, everybody talks the same language. And they began to build a tower so tall, that they had to have direct access to heaven. And it was a lot of like thousands of people working together to build this until then. So God one morning wake up, and saw these little men working, say, "What they are doing?" so here's what they were trying to do. They were trying to be God. And God said "I don't like this. I will punish these acts." And you know what he did? He said "They will speak different languages"

Babel Director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu explaining to a cast member the theological basis for the movie.

When the 2007 Oscar nominations were announced it appeared as though America was poised to suffer its biggest defeat at the hands of the Mexicans since the Alamo. Aside from the 7 nominations bestowed upon Inarritu's Babel, a further 6 were given to his countryman Guillermo De Toro for Pan's Labyrinth and 3 more for Alfonse Cuaron's Children of Men.

It didn't happen of course. Children of Men got nothing, Babel merely received the award for Best Soundtrack, whilst only Pans Labyrinth picked up multiple Oscars. Still, at the Cannes Film Festival Inarritu was rewarded for Best Director and at the Golden Globes the film scored a globe for Best Drama. By any yardstick, however, 2006 could fairly be seen as the year of the Mexican.

Babel is both an engaging and taut drama of chance and circumstance and a genuine work of art. It's story is both rich and complex in nuance and yet simple in filmatic weight. Miscommunication and misunderstanding poison us every day, Inarritu seems to be saying.

Babel is the third of Inarritu's so-called Death Trilogy after Amores Perros in 2000 and 21 Grams in 2003. The films do share a notion of chance meeting and interlinking stories, but Babel is the most ambitious of the works, travelling the globe for its stories of tragedy and misunderstanding.

Babel is a set of interlinking stories which proceeds something like this:

In a small hut in rural Morocco a goat farmer buys a rifle to deal with troublesome jackals. His two young boys take the gun to do some hunting. On a dare, the younger boy trains his sights on a bus and fires...

        ... striking Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American woman travelling with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) on a marriage restoring holiday. It isn't working and now she is wounded in remote territory. Whilst governments argue about terrorism each moment of delay in rescuing her brings her closer to death. The other bus passengers fight with Richard over his decision to keep the bus in the village where Susan is receiving very little medical attention. Amidst this, they have very little time to worry about ....

      ... their two children Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning) who are being cared for by their Mexican housekeeper Amelia (Adriana Barraza). She has her own problems. It is her son's wedding in Mexico on the weekend and she can't find anyone to look after the children. She makes the decision to take them to the wedding and hitches a ride with her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal). They experience problems with border guards in the same way as ...

      ...the police in Morocco are hunting the "terrorists" who shot the American tourist. They find out that the rifle originally...

      ...belonged to a Japanese businessman who is struggling to keep his small family together. His wife died some years ago in tragic circumstances and both he and his teenage daughter Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) have withdrawn into their shells. His daughter is a deaf-mute and facing her own issues of feeling ugly and alone despite the attention of her deaf friends.

As the film drives relentlessly on, each of the characters comes within a hair's breadth of disaster and the audience is constantly the edge of the seat waiting to see who will be left standing at the end.

After Babel was released, Inarritu famously fought with script writer Guillermo Arriaga over their work on 21 Grams. The dispute is thought to have related to Inarritu's desire to be regarded as the creative author of the work on the basis that he, as The Director, is the auteur. Leaving ego aside, this trio of films and in particular Babel, cry out for acknowledgement of Inarritu as one of the most stylish and intelligent film makers working today. Not only is he able to coax some remarkable performances from his cast, both highly skilled and non-actors, he combines this in a whole that is as dizzying in its effect as it is nail biting.

Watching the film for the second time does, of course, reduce the tension level but it allows the viewer to concentrate on the finely nuanced acting performances. Inarritu is nothing if not a generous director. What other filmmaker would have mega voltage star power like Pitt and Blanchett in their film and yet allow relative unknowns to share equal screen time?

The two lead females Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza give excellent performances in very different roles. Barraza, something of a soap star in Mexico put on 35 pounds to play the careworn housekeeper and, despite a heart condition, struggled through long scenes where she is required to carry a child through a scorching desert. Kikuchi has a face that speaks volumes and conveys the pain at the core of her life, both the absence of hearing and the loss of her mother, with a rare mixture of frustration and restraint. She acts deafness in a sincere and believable fashion.

Babel did not earn its multiple Oscar nominations through universal praise. In fact many noted critics could barely restrain their vitriol at the film and it does have the tendency to divide audiences. Some found it aimless or, worse, too steeped in false drama of morbid expectation. Some critics of the film mistook it for a heartfelt plea for universal understanding, only to find it fell short of the mark. Others couldn't get past the plot coincidences that sometimes seem stapled uncomfortably together in an order to bring the disparate narrate threats into a coherent whole. Some felt that the age of the mash-up narrative and the events that bring them together ala Traffic, Crash and Magnolia was well and truly over.

All the criticisms are understandable but seem churlish in light of the significant achievements of the film. It is shot, lit, acted, edited and scored in a fashion which is fresh and exhilarating.

In superb irony and true to the theme of miscommunication, the most dramatic events in the movie (leaving aside the shooting) result from ordinary events gone horribly wrong. Inarritu is able to create extraordinary tension simply by combining and clashing cultures. Therefore, an incident at the border plays out like the tensest of thrillers even though the actual events are commonplace. Likewise the Mexican wedding with its two lily white American children contains an undercurrent of dread despite the festivities going on.

Other moments are unforgettable. The scene where Chieko and her friends meet up, take some drugs and hit a nightclub is not only bravura filmmaking but deserves to be seen as one of the best sequences in modern cinema.

Underlying the look and feel of the film is the Oscar winning score. Argentinean composer Gustavo Santaolalla, Oscar winner the previous year for Brokeback Mountain turned to the oud for the sound of Morocco and a plaintive guitar theme for the western world. In Japan long time composer Ryuichi Sakamoto creates some amazing and moving soundscapes and minimalist themes. Each of the stories is shot in a different way.

As the cinematographer said:

We wanted to visually represent the emotional journeys of the characters through the use of different film stocks and formats. We felt that subtle differences between the image quality of each story, like the texture of the film grain, the color saturation, and the sharpness of the backgrounds could help enhance the experience of being in different places geographically and emotionally

The effect in the film is profound. The Moroccan sequence was shot on 16mm film blown up to 35mm to give it that slightly fuzzy heat haze look, whereas the Japanese sequences are razor sharp and filled with cold blues. As well, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto uses a shallow depth of field in the Japanese scenes to emulate the character's isolation through deafness.

The film is beautiful to look at as each frame feels perfectly composed and meaningful.

The Departed may have won the Oscar for Best Film but, for my money, Babel is one of the most compelling works of cinema art for the last 10 years.

In whatever format, it deserves to be watched, perhaps endured, and savoured.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality

Video

    Babel comes to DVD in a 1.78:1 transfer consistent with its 1.85:1 cinematic aspect ratio. It is 16x9 enhanced.

Paramount have wisely chosen to put the film and the full length extra on separate disks which has given the film room to move heading off any fear of compression in this fairly lengthy movie. As it is the transfer is well nigh impeccable with the various film stock expertly blended and balanced. Tokyo with its cold cityscapes is a living creature in the same way as the dusty Mexican roads and the desolate Moroccan outback.

The look of the film is slightly matt and there is noticeable film grain in some scenes but all comes together in an artistic whole.

The print is impeccable and free of artefacts. The colours are vibrant when required although, as said, muted tones are dominant. The blacks are deep and the shadows effective.

All in all an excellent visual experience.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    Babel is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 running at 448Kb/s.

The film has plenty of ambient sound and this is carried through in the transfer with good stereo separation. There is not actually a great deal of surround life and the subwoofer is not called in often but the overall effect is of a quality sound transfer.

I have already mentioned the soundtrack, which may be purchased on a double CD. The music has a life of its own. It is not just the haunting guitar and oud themes but also the cold urban life of Ryuichi Sakamoto's contributions like the haunting Bibo No Aozora. Listen to Iguazu/Deportation from the soundtrack (an old track of his) for a microcosm of the film or the loping Mexican song Cumbia Sobre El Rio for a lift.

The dialogue in the film is well rendered and there did not appear to be any audio-sync problems. There are subtitles in English and English for the hearing impaired which give a good account of the on-screen action.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

The collector's version of Babel is a 2 DVD affair. The second disc has only two extras - a filmmakers diary and the theatrical trailer. Both are valuable.

Theatrical Trailer 2.27

The trailer is one of the best I have seen combining elements, sounds and images from the film edited in such a way that it made me want to watch the film again.

Common Ground: Under Construction Notes (87.45)

The filmmakers diary is a rare beast - a truly good film companion.

It is a warts and all 75 minute film presenting the director as a sometimes vain, sometimes arrogant but always committed man with a bold vision that he was destined to carry through. He says at one point : Maybe sometimes I torture my actors with my own obsessions but I think it is worth it!

The moments of tension in the film mirrored aspects of the filmmaking process. Seventeen days before shooting started in Morocco Inarritu had no local cast. It was a mad scramble to get together the non-actors for the film. The man who plays the tour guide, quite a large role, turned up at the audition to fix some equipment and was promptly cast!

Working with non-actors presented numerous problems including the need for translators to work out the various dialects. As well, Inarritu decided to change the backstory to Brad Pitt's character when he arrived on set leading to some tense moments between Mexican and mega-star.

Filming in Japan was just as problematical. The director started shooting the volleyball scene in which Chieko is introduced only to realise that his lack of understanding of the sport hampered his ability to film the scene. Also, the Japanese were keen to let him film in the country until he tried to stop Tokyo traffic which is a big no-no!

By the end of the film we are left with an impression of a bold, sometimes insane production that came off despite the impediments and a director that you had to love and hate.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

   When the film was first released in Region 1 it was met with hostility by reviewers not least because it came without a skerrick of extras - just in time for the Oscars. That has now been rectified and the film there and here is also available in high definition formats. However, the feature length extra does not appear to be on either. Other regions appear to have a DTS track but otherwise the features are the same. Stick with Region 4.

Summary

    Babel is a great film for the quality of its acting as well as for the boldness of its vision. It is not for everyone and a straw poll at the office will usually result in as many lovers as detractors. For those who do like it the film is given a suitable transfer to DVD and a fascinating extra that makes for a quality package.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Friday, June 29, 2007
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DVR 630H-S, using Component output
DisplayPanasonic TH-50PV60A 50' Plasma. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080i.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX - SR603
SpeakersOnkyo 6.1 Surround

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
great film and soundtrack -