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.