DVD Review: Babel [HD-DVD]
by Alex Keen
Published: February 20, 2007
The Oscar Nominated drama "Babel" stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Adriana Barraza, and Rinko Kikuchi. These five actors portray characters dealing with a multitude of problems interconnected and overlapping. Barraza portrays a Mexican nanny taking care of the children of Pitt & Blanchett. Pitt and Blanchett's characters are wealthy Americans vacationing when tragedy strikes them. This tragedy is connected to a family of poor Moroccans who have just purchased a rifle originally owned by the father of Rinko Kikuchi's character, an under-sexed deaf-mute. Together these tangled storylines create a canvas similar to what was seen in "Crash". The decisions of each character have dramatic effects on people they may never meet. It is this connection that director Alejandro González Iñárritu explores in bits and pieces of "Babel".
The editing of the multiple storylines is central to the storytelling. Like "Crash", multiple storylines are simultaneously unfolding while being staggered in reality. A one-sided phone conversation at the start of the movie is used as the bookend of the movie to aid audiences looking for some kind of time line. Fortunately, the editing of "Babel" is perfect, and a time frame is always easily identifiable, so the story never suffers from that impediment. Each of the storylines runs independent of the others while maintaining the common thread of miscommunication. Without a doubt, the Oscar nomination for Best Editing is well deserved and one of the most entertaining aspects of "Babel".
Because the plot of this movie is complicated, a lot of burden is placed on the shoulders of the actors. Performances by Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi carry a majority of the weight. Pitt, Blanchett, and Bernal are called upon to add momentary dashes of dramatic friction, however, it is apparent that their stories are included more for coloring than for depth. This decision forces the audience to suspend more of their disbelief on Barraza and Kikuchi's storylines. Unfortunately, both storylines have opposing vibes that feel divisive.
While Barraza's Mexican maid storyline has a celebratory introduction, the dramatic tension inherent in every scene is fun to participate in. You never know when a passable situation is going to go to hell but you can feel it coming. And with Barraza's exemplary performance, you'll feel a large range of emotions. While there are moments that will test your ability to suspend disbelief, Barraza holds your hand through it with the skill of a proven thespian.
Expectations must have been just as high for Kikuchi's storyline which, unfortunately, never lived up to the hype. While Kikuchi's performance is incredibly brave, her character's journey stumbles just at the end. The risk of showing a teenage deaf-mute Japanese girl coming of age is to be applauded, but veers a little into the bizarre before and at the climax. The storyline excels when handling Kikuchi's interactions with teenage boys, but loses any momentum when a homicide subplot is introduced. Focusing on this character's sexual identity and frustration would have been been more interesting and a much better place to wrap up the drama.
The third central storyline, the one that is least mentioned in the mass media, is the story of a rural Moroccan family. The family is portrayed by actors new to Hollywood movies and brings to the screen an incredible authenticity. While their situation might appear stereotypical, the performances overcome that limitation and cement these characters as believable. The fact that two innocent children can set off a series of global incidents just because of their inter-familial feud is fascinating and engaging. While "Babel"'s storyline ranges from excellent to par, the Moroccan subplot maintains a high standard throughout.
Overall, "Babel" is an interesting ensemble tragedy that deserves to be seen despite its flaws. The performances and editing outshine the storyline enough to intrigue curious audiences. However, the failure to embrace a coherent and comprehensive storyline will keep this movie as the redheaded stepchild of "Crash".
This review was done of the HD-DVD version of the movie and had minimal extra content. Audio and video sounded and looked clean but lacked the definitive appearance of being HD video. Perhaps this early release has been watered down to meet high demand. Or perhaps the film was not shot with the intention of doing a killing in the High Def market.