So I saw it on Friday. For the first hour or so I was really quite excited and impressed. Alejandro González Iñárritu does a great job expressing complicated situations with realism and honesty that is quite impressive in its accuracy. Babel is the first film I can think of set in Arab North Africa, and is, along with Syrianna, one of the few films to present a realisitic view of what life is like for Arabs.
If you want to watch the film without spoilers, you might want to stop here.
The film opens in Morocco, though it could as well be Egypt or another Arab land. A goat herder buys a rifle from a neighbor and gives it to his two young sons, telling them that they need to shoot the jackals who have been harrassing the herd. The boys, being immature and irresponsible, start shooting the rifle out of boredom. The older of the two complains that it doesn't have the range that it is supposed to, so the younger, who is a better shot, starts targeting vehicles on the road overlooked by the hills where their herd is grazing.
No, this can't end well. This story line leads to the second story line, featuring Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt as an American couple taking a vacation to "be alone" to try to resolve some marital issues that become clear. After an opening scene involving an argument (or a non-argument, depending on your perspective), they are riding in a bus, with Cate at the window, when a bullet flies in and seriously wounds her in the shoulder. This leads to a panicky situation as the tourists try to find medical care more than an hour's drive from the nearest hospital. With the help of a local, they pull off the road to a small village where a doctor may help.
A third story line features a teenager in Tokyo. I've taken two trips to Tokyo and also found the Tokyo sequences to be very well done. Rinko Kikuchi plays a deaf girl, Chieko, who is fighting serious psychological issues with her father and with puberty that also include her mother's recent death. Her psychological troubles manifest themself in exhibitionism.
A fourth story line concerns two children, a boy and a girl, at home in California, who are waiting for their parents to return from vacation. (Small surprise: the parents are Blanchett and Pitt - no kidding!) The cleaning woman Amelia, played by Adrianna Barazza, tries to find a sitter for the kids so she can go to her son's marriage in Mexico. When she cannot find anybody her solution is to bring the kids with her!
For the early part of the film, the drama is building in the Moroccan sequences, and starting to bud in Tokyo, while the Mexican sequence grows more slowly. This leads to my main complaint with the film: the pacing is off. A half hour of watching Blanchett fight the bullet wound is interesting. It drags on the length of the film so by the time the situation is resolved, I'm just sitting there thinking "Get done with this already, I stopped caring an hour ago." There is a finite amount of drama involved here, and it's stretched too thin.
I never quite cared enough about the two Moroccan boys. One of my peeves with films is when they have children do incredibly stupid things. The implication is that children are somehow too stupid or immature to know better. And yet I remember being a child, and at no point in my childhood did the idea "Hey, let's shoot this rifle at a bus!" be at all in the list of Things I Might Do. I understood why the kids did what they did, but I didn't really feel any empathy for them. The story might have been better if they had simply been terrorists.
As for the Mexican storyline, it became quickly clear that Something Bad would happen as a result of Amelia's decision to bring the kids to her son's wedding. Her driver is her nephew Santiago, who insists that he's not drunk and can drive them back to San Diego even though it's nearly dawn. It's bad enough that he's driving tired and half-drunk, but then he starts to get into ego conflicts with the border guards. Much silliness ensues.
At this point I lost patience with the film. I was expecting a bit more from this film than Mouthing Off at Authority Figure. It's not that I doubt that the resulting situation could happen, but it's more that I figure that Amelia deserves the mess she gets into. The kids don't, but that's not the point.
The Japanese story is not quite as disappointing. In fact, it nearly redeems the film by itself. But on the whole, I thought the film was going to be about something, and it turns out to simply be a recitation of a number of possible events, with little compelling interest to the story to justify its length at 142 minutes. What is happening? The film is so realistic as to lose any impact. I know people make horrible mistakes, and sometimes other people pay the price for their mistakes. Is that all this film has to offer? With the title of the film, I thought it would explore in greater depth the issues of communication and language and cultural barriers. But after a promising start along those lines, it just stopped developing that theme.
At this point, I wouldn't want Babel to win Best Picture at the Oscars, though I think it's the frontrunner. The other contenders are The Queen, which couldn't hold my attention on a transAtlantic flight (a bad sign), The Departed, which I liked a lot but suffered a bit on reflection, and Letters from Iwo Jima and Little Miss Sunshine, neither of which I've seen and neither of which I think will win. I think it's down to The Departed or Babel.
I think I liked Volver, Children of Men, and Little Children more than Babel. I don't quite understand why Volver is not nominated for Best Non-English Film. Well, I do understand that apparently politics plays a role. In spite of having made a number of tremendous films, Almodovar never gets nominated by the Spanish film society to represent Spain at the Oscars, so he never gets his films nominated at all. He did win a writing Oscar for Talk to Her.
Hmm...Oscars are this weekend and I think I will try to see at least one more contender before the awards are announced.