Home > Reviews > BABEL – Gustavo Santaolalla

BABEL – Gustavo Santaolalla

October 27, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

So this is what it feels like on the other side. Last year, I wrote an very positive review of Paul Haggis’ “Crash”. In fact, I went so far as to call it the year’s best film. I spent a good portion of time arguing with others who said the film was cheap, overdramatic, and contrived. Now, here is “Babel”, which is receiving reviews eerily similar to those “Crash” received, and they’re just as divided… some critics call it a complex and thought-provoking masterpiece, others call it hokey rubbish. This time around, I absolutely agree with the dissenters, for some of their reasons, and for some of my own. “Babel” was directed by the talented Alejandro González Iñárritu, who also made the acclaimed “21 Grams” and “Amores Perros”. Both of those films were contrived, but convincing. Not so here.

The film follows three different somewhat-linked storylines. The first takes place in Morocco, where a father buys a rifle for his two young sons to protect the sheep from jackals with. The boys start playing around with the rifle, and decide to shoot at a moving bus on a distant road. By chance, a bullet goes through the window and hits an American tourist (Cate Blanchett). Her husband (Brad Pitt) tries to get medical help in an area where there seems to be none available. The second thread involves the American couple’s house maid (Adriana Barraza), who is responsible for taking care of their children. The house maid wants to go to Mexico for her son’s wedding, but she can’t find anyone else to take care of the kids. So she decides to bring them with her across the border, despite having no legal permission slips from the parents. The third story is just barely connected to the others, and involves a Japanese deaf-mute teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who decides to embark on a series of increasingly bold sexual activities.

Everything here is impressive from a purely technical standpoint. The film is very well-shot, reasonably well-acted, and has a few haunting moments, especially early on. But once the set-up is done, the movie spirals into a long, dull funk. It’s clear within thirty minutes exactly where everything is going, and the film offers very few surprises along the way. To get to the inevitable plot destination, the film requires it’s seemingly intelligent characters to behave in very foolish ways. The film seems like an aimless tale in search of a message. What is Iñárritu trying to convey? That people need to speak multiple languages in order to make the world better? Given the “butterfly effect” of the children’s gunshot, is it a PSA about not giving guns to children? That the world is too caught up politics and not enough in people? Or, more probably, the simple mantra of ” shit happens”? Regardless of what the message is here, I didn’t care. The film is made from such a cold, clinical viewpoint that it’s hard to get involved emotionally with the fates of the characters. Situations that would be moving in and of themselves are rendered impotent by the sheer stupidity that is required to set them up.

When the film is not dull and aimless, it is perhaps a bit offensive. The third sequence involving the Japanese girl is mismanaged. Despite a couple of well-made scenes demonstrating the disconnect between the way we view the world and the way a deaf-mute person does, this was the sequence that I felt was most problematic. Not only does it have next to nothing to do with anything else in the movie (making it feel out of place), but the scenes of the teenage girl’s sexual advances are filmed in a way that borders on pornographic. It’s not so much what is shown as the way it’s presented… the leering camera shots and slick production values of these scenes seem to emphasize the sexuality of the scenes rather than their sad emotional core, which I feel is a repulsive mistake. The story has potential, and the acting by Rinko Kikuchi is admirable, but Iñárritu blows this segment to bits with his mismanagement.

Composing and performing the score for “Babel” is (breathe deep and let’s all say it together now) Academy Award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Despite the very negative backlash he got from the film score community for his win on “Brokeback Mountain”, he’s not a bad composer… “Brokeback Mountain” wasn’t exactly a poor score, simply not award-worthy. I also rather enjoyed his work on “North Country”. However, here he turns in something that justifies complaints. The score is so agonizingly minimal that it makes his work on “Brokeback Mountain” sound like “Planet of the Apes”. Most of it is a single acoustic guitar playing one… note… at… a… time… very… slowly… with a minimal synth drone in the background. He allows the guitar to play at normal speed towards the end. One cue features a very, very, loud electronic drone. That’s it, that’s the score, and in this reviewer’s opinion, it’s only adds to the plodding, aimless feel of the film. There are also numerous source cues appropriate to the film’s various locations.

I know there are those who think “Babel” is one of the year’s best films, and it’s not too hard to see why. The movie is so self-important and mystifying that it threatens to throw the label of “artless ignoramus” on anyone who doesn’t lather it with accolades like, “One of the year’s most revealing and timely films!” The participation of such people as Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, and Gael Garcia Bernal only adds to the “intimidation” factor. Ultimately, I suppose we will be subjected to a number of “Babel vs. Crash” newspaper and internet articles come Oscar season, so let me offer my quick comparison of the two multi-layered films. “Crash”, for all of it’s superficial weaknesses, was a film that resonated with me emotionally, and a film that I personally benefited from. I felt it was the sort of film that actually had the potential to make someone a better person, to re-examine the way the think of others. Ultimately, it encourages positive change. “Babel” doesn’t encourage or reveal anything, it simply throws up it’s hands, and it doesn’t seem to care much for it’s characters. Thus, so do we, and neither do we. A huge misfire.

Rating: *

Track Listing:

  • Tazarine
  • Tu Me Acostumbraste (performed by Chavela Vargas)
  • September/The Joker [Aftc’s Aces High Remix/Shinichi Osawa Remix] (performed by Fatboy Slim)
  • Deportation/Iguazu
  • World Citizen: I Won’t Be Disappointed/Looped Piano (performed by Keigo Oyamada, Amedeo Pace, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sketch Show and David Sylvian)
  • Cumbia Sobre el Rio (performed by Blanquito Man and Control Machete)
  • Hiding It
  • Masterpiece (performed by Rip Slyme)
  • Desert Bus Ride
  • Bibo No Aozora/Endless Flight/Babel (performed by Jacques Morelenbaum, , Everton Nelson, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Gustavo Santaolalla)
  • Tribal
  • Para Que Regreses
  • Babel (performed by Nortec Collective)
  • Amelia Desert Morning
  • Jugo a la Vida
  • Breathing Soul
  • Blinding Sun
  • Only Love Can Conquer Hate (performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto)
  • Panchangon
  • Two Worlds, One Heart
  • Phone Call
  • Gekkoh (performed by Susumu Yokota)
  • Catch
  • Mujer Hermosa
  • Into the Wild
  • Look Inside
  • Master
  • Oh My Juliet!
  • Prayer
  • Besito Cachicurris (performed by Daniel Luna)
  • Walking in Tokyo
  • Visitors (performed by Hamza el Din)
  • Morning Pray
  • Mi Adoracion (performed by Agua Calientes)
  • Skin of the Earth
  • Bibo No Aozora/04 (performed by Jacques Morelenbaum and Ryuichi Sakamoto)

Concord (2006)

Running Time: 130 minutes 35 seconds

Music composed, performed and produced by Gustavo Santaolalla.

  1. September 8, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    This is a film that is in part about how we fail to communicate and how we fail to understand not only with people in other cultures but also with people just around the block. This is the story of one family and how miscommunication and a lack of understanding spirals out into tragedy. Told in a disjointed manner that alters the time frame we have four stories: A family in Morocco who get a gun to protect the sheep they herd, A couple on vacation in the same country which has its vacation shattered by a shooting, the children of the couple who take a trip with their housekeeper to Mexico, and a seemingly unconnected story of a Japanese father and daughter. Thats what happens in simplistic terms. What happens on the screen is an often rending tale of how life connects us all in weird ways that we can’t always explain. Its a beautiful movie to look at and is magnificently acted.

    Unfortunately this viewer was bored silly by it. Pretentious to the point of silliness this is a movie that is going to spell out its premise over and over again. Yes, we can’t communicate (and if it isn’t clear one of the characters is deaf), yes we are all connected, yes this will lead to tragedy. Thank you for pointing it out for us, but did you have to do it for almost two and a half hours? Don’t get me wrong there is a good story in this movie, but the way the director has chosen to tell it, out of order with the grafting on of the Japanese portion of the film, it all becomes lost. Its an attempt to add some emotional and intellectual weight to a story that doesn’t need it. I walked out of the the film admiring it and what it was trying to do, but not liking it much at all.

  2. December 31, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    this shit won the Oscar for best score

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