Thursday, October 27, 2016

After 10 Years, "Babel" is Still a Compassionate Universal Tale

Scene from Babel
It was 10 years ago that cinema experienced the shot heard round the world. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel had the hefty mission of combining four stories that spanned the globe while showing how they all connected. With the stories ranging from a shooting accident to a babysitter travelling to Mexico with American children, the film managed to creatively convey the passion and understanding that the world should be more accepting of. It was a film that showed the capabilities of Inarritu at their fullest, and he hasn't been able to capture the magic as effectively since. 

Babel was a film that felt indicative of the 21st century. With the rise of technological use and most specifically social networking, the idea of being connected had rarely seemed as relevant. Of course, computers are kept to a minimum in the 2006 film and most events are joined together by tangential concepts. The initiating plot, a young boy in Morocco accidentally shoots an American tourist, leads to conflicts that connect to Japan, the United States, and Mexico. Not all of the stories revolve around murder, but most are meant to explore compassion and why it is key to second guess stereotypes. In the world of Babel, everyone is worthy of being understood as more than a one note character.

It is equally ambitious that despite being lead by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, the film is predominantly focused on actors of Japanese, Moroccan, and Mexican heritage. With the globe trotting journey that intersects at unexpected times, it's a tale that doesn't use the multiple arcs as a gimmick, but more as fodder for central themes. Some have more dire consequences than others, but all reflect the value of human connectivity. It is a world not unlike the real one of the time, and one that still seems more progressive than modern mainstream cinema would allow. The subtext has a profundity that makes the film work as art with a message, but not one that is exhaustive and preachy.

This wasn't Inarritu's first film of interconnected stories. However, it is one that saw him set his ambitions on a world scale. It did so ingeniously by showing that despite different cultures, the centrals themes are something that everyone goes through. Some of them may be more predictable or even melodramatic, but the director's occasionally stark tone manages to convey a deeper sense of inspiration. His beautiful cinematography captures the different stories with equal levels of beauty, and the Gustavo Santaolalla score emphasizes music in a joining fashion that makes for a deeper and more resonant feeling.

One of the unfortunate things about Inarritu's career following Babel is that he has failed to be this compassionate since. It was in part that the interconnected story technique was becoming a gimmick that he relied too much on. However, it was also his bleak tone that became problematic. After the prostate cancer drama Biutiful, he turned to comedy with Birdman: a film that was itself very snarky and cynical. After that was The Revanant: a film more known for masochistic torture of actor Leonardo DiCaprio than coherent storytelling. Babel was a film that was uplifting despite being part of the director's "Death Trilogy." This was in part because there were no actual villains, but simply victims of fate.

The film's $25 million budget was met with a phenomenal $135 million at the box office. Along with excellent reviews, it became an Oscar darling, even getting Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi both Best Supporting Actress nominations. Considering that 2016 currently suffers from a lack of diversity, this achievement going to actresses of Mexican and Japanese heritage for one film should be seen as its own sign of greatness. The film eventually lost to director Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which was seen more as the Academy's chance to finally give the director a long overdue Oscar for Best Director: a field that he should've won a few times over the previous 30 years. 

While The Departed is still a great film worthy of any and all praise, it was a second nature type of film for Scorsese. The younger and more spry Inarritu should have stood more of a chance in the race, as his film reflective more of the future of what Oscar-winning cinema should be. It was a diversity that wouldn't really be matched in the decade to follow. My one theory, besides The Departed being Scorsese's legacy win, was that the film's Oscar chances were undermined by Crash from the previous year. Director Paul Haggis' tale of Los Angeles lives intersecting for racial tolerance may be different than Babel, but structurally giving the award to another film of interconnected arcs would be seen as redundant. Considering the continuing backlash that Crash receives for beating more acclaimed films like Brokeback Mountain, not voting for Babel could be seen as righting some wrongs. The only issue is that in a better world, Babel would've at worst split the Best Picture and Best Director field with Scorsese. 

In the 10 years since, there have been some directors who have attempted the interconnected story aspect. David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" took the idea to a centuries-spanning sci-fi tale that was even more high concept and philosophical. The Wachowski Siblings with Tom Tykwer directed the film adaptation, which made Babel's cross-cutting seem amateurish. In subsequent years, The Wachowski Siblings have also explored interconnected sci-fi again in their Netflix series Sense8. While the general trend isn't as commonly practiced, there are those few who attempt to bring it into a modern context with fascinating results. Even if Babel wasn't the first, it was one of the first to be indicative of how intercommunication impacts daily society.

Babel is a film that ushered in what cinema should've been. It was an interracial landscape of stories joined together to explore common themes in breathtaking fashion. It helped to define the potential of world cinema by showing the commonalities between cultures while mining the familiar territory of drama. While Inarritu has only grown in stature in subsequent years, he has rarely been as effective as he is here. It is a vision of one artist proving that stories can be grandiose while remaining intimate. In the 21st century, it is important to share everyone's story. Babel told four of them, but managed to feel like so much more. Hopefully in the 10 years to come, cinema will catch up and remember Babel as being on the forefront of an inspiring trend.

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