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In a rare departure from the usual content, I've written a sort of movie review, that ended up more like a story of reflections for this issue. No spoilers, it's safe if you haven't seen it yet.
weekend, we finally got around to seeing
I am glad it was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, just so more people might go to see it, not that the awards matter that much. And because, weirdly enough, I read lots of reviews after seeing the film, and felt many critics just didn't get the greatness of it. For one thing, most people don't jump up when it ends because they are obviously quite moved, and often begin very animated discussions on the way out. Shouldn't it matter if people actually like the movie? My own sine qua non of a good film is the way it stays with you and haunts you afterwards, the way movies did when you were much younger. So many others are forgettable, I'm asking what was the name of that movie we just saw by the time I get home.
Reading all those reviews was originally my substitute for discussing the film, but I ended up reviewing the reviewers. Some missed the obvious, not unlike the way Matt Damon was criticized for being wooden and unemotional in The Good Shepherd, which he was obviously meant to be to fit his character. Many noted the similarities to Crash, with characters unknown to one another eventually impacting one another's lives. Critics of it love to mention this "butterfly effect", how an apparently harmless act may have such disastrous unforeseen consequences elsewhere; but honestly the film was not made simply to illustrate this relatively trivial point, it is only one of many complexities driving the plot. Also, in Babel, far more than hidden or even obvious cultural prejudices are at work to divide people and cause our infamous difficulty communicating. If anything, we are already far too familiar with how different cultures can divide us into warring camps. What is at the root of this inability to understand and connect, even with those we love in our own families? You begin to notice then how all the real breakthroughs are intuitive, take place almost in silence, and how that understanding can cross language barriers as well. Some of the film's most intimate moments happen wordlessly between strangers. At times, the tension of what may befall these people has an almost unbearable intensity. The director manages to give a good sense of place, with scenes in Mexico, Morocco, Japan, and the US that are peopled with many non-actors being themselves. There is a sense of ordinary life happening, that these could easily be real events, and yet an overlay of intense drama is created by the suspense, a fear of impending doom.
Not that I hold his good looks against Brad Pitt, but for once he is not prettier than the girls in the movie. If anything, the lesser known (to American audiences at least) actors have equally compelling roles. The deaf/mute Japanese teenager is brilliantly done and she deserves to walk away with all the acting awards. Precisely because you have to receive everything about her from her eyes and body language, it's hard to miss the message being given about language there. But once again, the director avoids triteness and stereotypes, and creates a stunningly unique real person. And the Mexican nanny is equally compelling, she makes you care, so that you feel deeply about how it ends for her.
Since I am writing here, it begs the question no other critic even asks, "Is it nondual?" Not that it matters, because having any explicit message seldom makes for a better movie. And so what if anyone is taken out of themselves, even just for the duration of a movie, long enough to identify and care about a character, it is still just another experience. Maybe some people go away deeply realizing how we are all one, and how, no matter our outward differences, we are the same in our longing for connection, for being understood. Honestly, it doesn't feel like some uplifting message movie, it is more like that infamous life review where your guts are turned inside out and what you see isn't all that pretty, but it is real. What we really are is enough to break your heart. Can someone be profoundly changed by a film? Possibly, but apparently it is also easy to miss many such aspects of the film. Sure, the director does present communication, with as many instances of misunderstanding as true connection, and this contrast forces you to see how, ultimately, it has nothing to do with language. Perhaps my husband is right when he says communication is basically an illusion.
In the original Babel story, mankind has the ambition to build their own "stairway to heaven". Whether the tower, still existing near Baghdad, was destroyed by a god-sent earthquake or collapsed under its own weight, it is used in the Bible as an explanation for how a once united mankind came to be scattered over the earth, losing the ability to communicate with one language. It can be a symbol for the folly of spiritual ambition, or of a oneness destroyed by distance and lack of understanding. We have seen rather more recently the many consequences of towers falling. The tower is more than just a metaphor about language, and so is Babel the film.
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