Monday, February 19, 2007


In the Stephen King book Hearts in Atlantis, the old guy tells the young boy "Good books don't give up all their secrets at once". I actually didn't care much for that book (or the movie that was based on it), but that is the quote that stuck with me. I assume the same principle applies for movies, so I kept that quote in mind when I watched Babel last February 10. (Yes, more than a week ago. Slow to blog am I!)

I have a weakness for these types of movies. You know the type-- movies that aren't necessarily entertaining, but they attract good press because they're likely to win awards. The Oscars coming up next week fueled my interest in this award-winning stuff even more. I watch these movies well aware that I'm likely to be bored stiff and miss the point entirely, but I feel almost obliged to sit through them because they seem somehow important. I decided to go to the movies and watch Babel alone rather than drag anyone along with me, out of concern that they would be bored to tears.

Thankfully, Babel is far from being a boring movie. "Entertaining" is perhaps the wrong word to use... riveting is more appropriate. Every scene of the movie, even when nothing particularly important seems to be happening, is shot in a way that carries such a dramatic weight to it. The movie is nearly 2.5 hours long, but I didn't feel the urge to look at my watch even once.

The movie's plot is made up of a bunch of separate but loosely interconnected threads, mostly revolving around the accidental shooting of an American tourist in Morocco. There's the Japanese businessman who gave away his rifle, the Moroccan hunting guide that sold the rifle to a farming family, the father that lent the rifle to his sons, the boy who tested the bullet's range on a passing bus, the American tourists that were in that bus, their American children back in California, the Mexican nanny taking care of the kids, and her Mexican family back in Mexico. Oh, and the Japanese businessman has a deaf-mute teenage daughter.

I came out of the screening fully convinced that I had watched a great movie. Not just a good movie, a great movie! But when I woke up the following morning and thought about it, I remember thinking that I had watched a great movie, but I couldn't put my finger on what the movie was actually about. Yes, they're a bunch of interconnected mini-plots, but there didn't seem to be any focus or underlying theme that tied them all together. For a while I thought the theme was something like "Everything is connected", and that does make sense for a while. But what was the point of the deaf-mute Japanese girl's story? Her tale seems to be the least connected to any of the other subplots of the movie, but it gets a large chunk of screen time!

It wasn't until I checked around the internet for Babel-related commentary that things finally seemed to click (and I smugly told myself that some part of my mind knew that that's what the movie was about all along). It's not merely "Everything is connected"... the gunshot was merely an excuse to exhibit all these stories, not the reason.

The theme of the movie is that, despite everyone being human and having the same basic human emotions and instincts, simple cultural differences get in the way of people understanding each other. The Moroccan kids made a foolish accident in shooting the bus, but the American government was convinced it was terrorism. The Mexican nanny means well but she's treated with suspicion because she's an illegal immigrant. The deaf-mute Japanese girl was desperate for affection and connection to another human being, but because of her disability people treat her like a monster. Though completely disconnected from the rest of the stories, that Japanese story is actually the most potent of all.

There are seven languages used in the movie, and the majority of the movie is not in English (subtitles are used), but surprisingly I was hardly aware that most of the time I was watching a foreign language movie. The movie presents every culture in the most human way possible by including culturally-transcendent behavior that speaks directly to audiences regardless of language. It all fits into the theme that no matter what language you speak, when stripped down to the core we can communicate with raw human instinct.

The more I think about it, the more the movie continues to reveal its secrets and its brilliance to me. I'll take that as a sign that it really is a great movie (though I wish it didn't require some external research before I actually "got it").

Of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture, I've only seen Babel and The Departed. I'd really like to see the other three so I could have a proper opinion on which one is best, but I don't think any of them showed in local theaters. I will still be rooting for The Departed to win, but I would not be at all upset if the award went to Babel.


  1. Did I ever mention, Mr. Gonzalez, that you are a good writer, and that I would not mind at all if you were to give up an IT career in favor of becoming an author, journalist, or politician?

  2. I agree with Miguel's first comment. Mike, you write very well. Your writing shows you think clearly and sensibly. The writing reflects a mind that's aware of its surroundings, is curious about what's in it, is interested in what's worth noticing, and most importantly, is connected and engaged. The impeccable English bears the mark of a rigorous education. I question the assumption underlying Miguel's question: that an IT career may be less worth pursuing than one in journalism or politics or writing. It depends on the individual. I vote for doing what one likes best. -- Vic Romero

  3. The way Inarritu and Arriaga weaved these complex stories together was indeed a wonder to behold .. The story with the deaf-mute teenager just hit me particularly hard .. I'd love to see Rinko Kikuchi win the Oscar, but that's not gonna happen

  4. Miguel/Vic:
    I don't have the creativity to be a fiction author, the authority to be a non-fiction author, or the natural charisma to be a politician. Hmm... I might fit nicely into the role of a journalist, but for now I'm happy enough where I am. ^_^

    Reel Fanatic:
    I haven't seen the nominees for Best Supporting Actress aside from the two nominations of Babel, but everything I hear indicates that Jennifer Hudson has a lock on winning that one. It would be great for Rinko Kikuchi to win it though-- not only because it was a great performance, but I'd like the added novelty of having someone win an acting award for a completely non-speaking role (sign language aside). :->

  5. Among the three works of Innaritu and Arriaga, Babel is easily the weakest. It sucks that 21 Grams and Amores Perros (dammit, you have to watch this if you liked Babel!) were never released in the mainstream and weren't recognized for their merits.

    Babel comes after the year that Crash won the Oscar so it may seem like Innaritu is copying the winning formula despite the fact that he has been doing it for more than half a decade now!

    I LOVE BABEL TOO! Man, Rinko Kikuchi was amazing in this film. Adriana Barraza also played her part to absolute perfection. But you'll have to agree that the film seems very contrived:

    1) If you're an illegal alien, will you dare cross the border?
    2) If you're a xenophobic American, would you go to an organized tour of Morocco?

    It's a bit weird, but I really really like it. The only film (this year) that beats this is Pan's Labyrinth.

  6. lateralus:
    True, I haven't seen 21 Grams or Amores Perros. I think the fact that Babel's style lined up closely with Crash's style sort of hurt its chances at winning the Best Picture Oscar. That and the fact that everyone wants to give what's due to Martin Scorsese. Well, I thought The Departed was great too.