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Movie Review: Babel

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Release Date: October 27, 2006

The infelicitously named Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of 21 Grams and Amores Perros, gives us a tale woven of several other smaller tales which, though separate in time and space, are linked together like a chain. The conceit is attractive and Iñárritu is a capable director, but it is bad news for a film when a viewer sits staring at the credits saying, “So what?”

Babel, similar to the director’s earlier works, is a mix of different stories – four in all – which are linked to another story and so indirectly are all connected. Brad Pitt plays Richard, and Cate Blanchett plays Susan, a married couple vacationing in the Moroccan desert. Their children are back home in San Diego, being taken care of by the nanny whose son’s wedding in Mexico is approaching. In Japan a young deaf and mute girl lives with her father and both struggle to overcome her mother’s death while the girl yearns for broader male acceptance which her disability seems to deny her. In Morocco, a shepherd family purchases a new rifle to scare away jackals. As the movie progresses, we slowly see how the different scenarios are connected.

First we are presented with the Moroccan family, as the father purchases a rifle for his sons who must watch over the herd of goats. While trying the rifle out, one of the young sons hits a tourist bus and shoots Susan in the shoulder. Far from a hospital, Richard and the tour guide struggle to get Susan some medical care until an ambulance can come for her. Back in San Diego, the nanny is frustrated to realize that they will not be coming home in time to allow the nanny to go to her son’s wedding. The connection in Japan becomes apparent later on.

Like the aforementioned works, the style of Babel is stripped down realistic bereft of ornamentation, very much like a low budget video documentary. No slow motion, no dramatic lighting, no special sound effects, little use of tripods and absolutely no hamming for the camera of any sort. It is a style which can be useful and the director makes it work. The separate stories are also at least moderately interesting, although occasionally they get a bit sensational, which jars with the realistic filming style that the director employs.

But despite what the film has going for it, it falls short of impressing. For one thing, the central theme of the movie is not accurately explored. The reference to the Tower of Babel suggests that at the heart of everything will be a fundamental inability to communicate, and while there are many forms of language and many misunderstandings, miscommunication is by and large not responsible for the predicaments in which the characters find themselves. We are left with four different quandaries which are quite apart from the miscommunication in the movie, and neither one acts as a commentary on the other.

Nor, for that matter, do the separate stories comment on one another, reinforce one another or truly illuminate each other. They are simply four separate stories with at times tenuous connections. Yes, they have similar themes running throughout – such as miscommunication and familial love triumphing over the hard times – but the stories often feel quite isolated from any other part of the movie. And perhaps this is the point, but then, the separate stories need to be more interesting in and of themselves, because little satisfaction is derived from the scant interplay between them. And hence my shoulder shrug as the credits rolled. Why was I supposed to see this film? What was the entertainment value, or at least the deeper meaning? OK, they discover their love in the end… so what?

The Upside: The movie is well shot and directed. Each story has within it the essentials of an interesting tale: interesting characters, places and obstacles. The conceit as a whole has merit.

The Downside: It never really amounts to much. The themes seem inadequately explored.

On the Side: Some have commented that Babel seems to be an argument for gun control. I shall spare the good reader my opinion on that.

Final Grade: C+

Matthew Alexander is a Senior Film Critic for Film School Rejects.

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  • Alan Gerstle

    i think you miss the point of the movie Babel. Of course, miscommunication runs as a theme throughout the movie, but that in itself would make the movie no different than dozens of others of various genres from ‘serious drama’ to soap opera. The significance in Babel is that–in my view–we do not understand our own motives or actions. In other words, we miscommunicate with our true selves. Notice how so many of the characters behave with determination but with no forethought or self-knowledge. The father gives his two young boys a rifle and leaves them; a Japanese girl tries to have men love her; a housekeeper jeopardizes her job by doing something very risky; her nephew tries to help her and does so foolishly and self-destructively. The first time we see Brad Pitt & his wife, she begins the conversation with “Why are we here?” {itt responds with “Let’s not start that.” The fact is they don’t really know, although they presmably think they do. When we learn their motivation, it really does not make much sense, although of course, it does in some odd way. Babel is about how we are compelled to be human–faulty beings–and we must learn to live with our imperfections, not pretend that we understand ourselves, for that is merely deception. Well, that’s just for starters. I don’t have time to ‘deconstruct’ the whole film, but you get the idea.


    a good story with a few glitches.

    And some low punches too (what is the meaning of the letter handed by the deaf girl? what is the real story with her father?) the injustice (why the good boy is shot while the other one lives?)

  • dbmec

    Those who travel globally and study the ongoing collisions of high tech civilizations into ancient cultures understands this forceful and compelling expression of the current state of humanity.

  • Dave

    Eric Olsen’s review of Babel was terrific. A lot better than the film, and more accurate than I could have written. My wife and I were stunned that this movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. More fitting would have been Most Boring Picture. Babel could have been cut to 90 or 100 minutes, eliminating most (or all)of the Japanese segment. There would have been more of a flow and continuity to the events. We were disappointed that the many outstanding acting performances were wasted.

  • Peter Ross

    Dear Matthew Alexander, I admit I didn’t see this film yet (i.e. Babel; I’m researching it for the Oscars) but I think you may have facetiously and deliberately missed the point here. You couldn’t have “misapprehended” it without tongue-in-cheek. You can’t possibly say in one breath “What was I supposed to see in this film” and yet in the next say “OK, so they triumphantly discover their love in the end but so what?”. Classic incongruity! Obviously that thing called love *IS* the point. Perhaps it doesn’t deserve an academy award but it’s no accident that the frail pathetic human conditions of “misunderstanding”, “misapprehension”, “hostility”, “accidents”, “war” and the eternal “failure to communicate” replete with its long list of dire consequences and threats to life, limb, property and happiness are often only redeemed in this life by the epiphany of “love” despite every reason that it should be eclipsed.

    -Peter Ross-

  • Lynn Larson

    I turned the movie off after the second child porno scene. The little shepherd boy masturbating behind a rock was very disturbing but at least his genitals weren’t shown. Not so with the Asian teenage girl. When she opened her legs to show her pubic hair and labia, I turned the film off.
    I think this was a desperate attempt to be on the “cutting edge” every movie maker dreams of. To me it was a movie a pedophile might find worth watching.

  • katie smith

    The movie is about a gun and how it changed every ones lives. The nanny was deported back to Mexico and she will marry the man from the wedding and will be with her family again. Richard and Susan will have a relationship again and the Japanese girl will have a good relationship with her father. The Moroccan family were the only ones that lost a son and a brother. He sacrificed his life to save others.

  • lorie dimitrio

    Babel was Boring and Depressing. The wounded wife couldn’t be moved, and yet Pitt could sit her up so she could pee and then repeatedly kiss her and move her neck and even put his hand in the area where she was injured and she didn’t even complain about it? Creepy, pointless, unnecessary, and banal are just some words to describe this film. These two stupid people had to travel on a tour bus to BFE to be alone? They had to leave their country to be alone? So they leave their surviving kids behind — and what a swell time they had with the nanny, huh? Masturbating boys and beaver girls, drunken adults with no good judgment, neglectful parents. What does Babel imply? That common sense is not common anymore? That one gun can magically makes a whole lot of people stupid overall? Oh, aren’t we so artsy and so cutting edge? Give me a break – this movie just sucked. I’ll bet Rosie O’Donnell loved it, though.

  • rskh

    what the heck did the japanese girl write in her note to the cop? any theories out there? did she confess to the murder of her mother??? using that same rifle per chance??

  • kiki

    i have an issue with the killing of the 5 chickens….are we supposed to buy that those birds were gonna be plucked and served for the wedding dinner? and i dont believe the local children wouldnt have been just as distressed by the drunk adults glee in the torture and beheading.

  • SMLP

    This is For kiki and rskh. Kiki my eyes widend big time when i saw him ring that Chicken’s neck. But I just took it as the local children had seen it done before. The kids were playin chase the chicken for fun.
    Rskh, Japanese girls father had given the riffle away long ago probally before his daughter was born. The Girl rote in the note that she was gona jump over tha balcony im sure of it. her father made it just in time. I’m guessing her mother was deaf too and was tire of the slince as well.

  • amal viji

    this is a fucking review as far as i am concerned

  • amal viji

    one has to imbibe the film well before shitting these kind of immature reviews

  • Dani

    Some people seem to be so ignorant as to what films are about.It is about cultural differences, human nature,behavior,relationships.It highlights many social issues. And there are no child porno scenes yes a boy was masturbating guess what children that age do that. And the Japanese female is not a child she is a 24 year old woman potraying a teenager in a film. It’s called acting. I feel like some of the reviews here are simply not well thought out and unintelligent.

  • John C. Williams

    I likewise found the movie to be a downer, but again, I understood or at least I think I understood the director’s intentions for the most part. As a musician I was somewhat disappointed in the score, which did happen to win an Academy Award, as I thought Mr. Santaolallo’s score for “Brokeback Mountain,” for which he was also honored one year earlier was more haunting and resonant, and something which lingered in my memory more so than the melancholic, meandering, albeit atmospheric cues he provided for “Babel.”

  • john

    For kiki
    you must be one of those sheltered americans who don’t know how other cultures work and I’m not even mexican. killing and eating chickens for a party is pretty commonplace in cultures where there aren’t local 5 star restaurants sweetie.

  • Siso

    I don’t agree that the note of the japanese girl was a suicide note. If so, the cop would have runed to her as soon as she read it, and he stayed too finish his dinner. So it was probably another thing…

  • K

    The statement of the movie was how simple actions when not using cognitive thinking skills can lead to tragedy. Key being linked to confusion as in tower of babel.
    To complain about the nudity is absurd. Stick to disney flicks if you cannot handle adult content.
    The note was to apologize for her actions. First of lying about her mother jumping and her try at the failed seduction.
    Not familiar with actress that played Nanny, but felt it was a stellar performance.

  • Morich From B-More

    A good movie provokes emotion and thought. A good movie is diffrent things to diffrent people depending on their past and where they are in their present lives. This movie accompished both of these goals as evident by the reviews above and the ones to surely follow.

  • Leonard

    Unlike the majority of viewers I thought Babel was a masterpiece and should have won the academy award for best picture. Inarritu captured the elusive effects of chance events that are out of our control and which can change the destinies of many people’s lives.

  • Anon

    The movie had me crying throughout a lot. It’s probably the type you should see twice, but I just finished it. I’m still letting it sink in, and though I felt a little disturbed watching such sexual youths, it really is pretty typical. I’m a twenty year old virgin girl, and I have fourteen year olds gawking at me as though I’m a freak of nature as such- but I don’t see why anyone’s really taking those parts into such deep consideration. I’m feel there was a lot left out… unless of course we’re supposed to be the ones left confused. I wanted to see some kind of closure for the children and the nanny- and I’m going to have to ask some of my Japanese friends to see if they caught any of the note. I myself don’t know kanji, so while I could have picked up the hiragana and katakana, it probably would still have left me with very little to go by. If I were to take a wild stab in the dark, I’d say it was probably an apology note… though I still don’t understand why the stories didn’t match up in regard to the shooting and the jumping suicide… perhaps it was all a part of Chieko’s portrayal as a very problematic young girl with borderline personality disorder or something…

  • J

    I agree with the main review, although Mr. Alexander was far kinder than I would be. I just got around to seeing this. Was there a movie here? More like 4 bad film school shorts just randomly spliced together. This movie reminded me a lot of Traffic. Melodramatic to the point of silliness. Cobbled-together story links. Ridiculous plot elements that are supposed to be so thought-provoking. (Traffic: the crackhead drug czar’s daughter; Babel: the kids in the desert). Both of those movies managed to take topics that one would think could only be interesting and make them so dull and thin that they were nearly unwatchable. D.

  • Josh Camarillo

    I’ll assume Peter Ross has seen this by now. You researched this movie for the Oscars, Mr. Ross? I suppose we should envision your criticisms as having more credibility than ours? But any critic with any measure of credibility would forego his urge to speak before actually seeing the movie. NEWSFLASH– LOVE **is NOT** the point. But I agree that this review is utterly narrowminded. Since when does a movie have to wow us into appreciation?

    A pure example of the result that Hollywood’s “instant gratification” trend has bestowed on us.

    If we all took the time to see the deeper meaning behind it, then we’d enjoy it a bit more. A closer look would reveal that LOVE wasn’t always what was in question.

    It was SELFISHNESS. Pitt’s character did something selfish that put his marriage on the rocks, and his family’s security in question. The Japanese girl’s father drove his wife to suicide for his selfishness, and she hated him for it. The older brother selfishly wanted to shoot the rifle first, and became jealous after learning that his younger brother was more skilled at firing it.

    And the “irony” of the story was that it all started because of GENEROSITY. The Japanese father generously gave the rifle to the old man who was his hunting guide when he visited Morrocco. Starting to make sense now?

    Good to know there’s still writers out there that can still write a story with some real moral. The story focuses on it’s plot, and not cineatography, or flashy CG effects. People shouldn’t get their hopes up for a blockbuster just because it has Brad Pitt in it.

  • nope

    I was searching for the answer to what was in the Japanese girls note to the Police Officer and read many opinions. The more I read, the more I realized that there were many themes throughout the movie, including the obvious theme of the tower of babel and the lack of communication/understanding between different segments of global civilization. One theme which is mentioned but I think holds a lot of weight is the anti gun theme. The Japanese girl probably blamed her father for her mother’s death. He was the one who owned and inadvertently provided the gun to the mother which she used to kill herself. The gun is then given to the Moroccan man who in-turn gives to his son who shoots someone as well. Another gun is shown being fired at the wedding and is portrayed as scaring the children. Soo the Japanese girl lies and says the mother jumped off the balcony because she is trying to protect her father from being responsible for her mothers death in anyway. The note likely says she is sorry for what she tried to do and explains what really happened to her mother.

  • Richard Williams

    Just finished watching Babel – I agree it was all rather disjointed and I was wondering how the strands of the story would eventually come together. In they end they almost didn’t. Whilst the Japanese element was intruiging, it wasn’t really necessary and made the film seem contrived. What I want to know is, why was Brad Pitt’s conversation at the end so different from the same conversation earlier in the film. Perhaps I missed the point here, that by not having a carer for the kids a whole disastrous set of events happened. Do we assume that the nanny and kids to Mexico incident didn’t really happen as “Rachel” was arriving to take care of the kids? A thought provoking film, which promised a great deal but didn’t deliver. A shame because it could have been brilliant.

  • Shawn O’Shea

    This movie will stay with me forever. At first, because of the title ‘Babel’ , I thought it would be about the obvious . . miscommunication. And as the film progressed, there seemed to be so many bad things that could possibly happen in Mexico to the American children, but didn’t . . so I began thinking this will be about how, even with
    differing cultures and languages, people of good will can all get along.

    But then the children almost died in the desert and that ended that theory for me. The final scene
    was when I think the whole film’s theme suddenly became clear. The Japanese man and his daughter,
    living in a penthouse in an extremely expensive city . . literally on top of the world, and yet incredibly dysfunctional. Sure, they had a family
    tragedy, but nothing like some of the poorer cultures portrayed, who just manage to eke out a
    subsistence living.

    It made me think this is about miscommunication
    between social classes. The Japanese man gave a weapon as a gift to a poor herdsman that was probably worth more than the the poor fellow makes
    in two years. The gift may have been well-intentioned, but he had no idea where or what the rifle would end up doing in a foreign culture full of smugglers and (alluded to) terrorists.

    And Brad Pitt’s family in the film goes through some bad moments, but his life will resume while
    his childcare worker’s dream of life in the US is dashed. It just seemed like the poorest had the hardest consequences in all these situations. The
    other herdsman’s son was killed by police, etc.

    So, I feel the film’s true message was how the better off people in the world negatively affect the poorer cultures, regardless of good intentions, and probably because of cultural insensitivity (self-absorbtion, thoughtlessness?).

  • Rick E.

    The fact that no one can agree on what the hell the movie is about is a sure sign it is a BAD movie.

  • dabui

    i was only here to know what the japanese note was really all about. it wasnt clear enough but some of the opinions i saw here mad sense somehow. then i remember jap directors make their films making the viewers asking for explanation on some scenes that leave them clueless. it is this element and style that the director must have also included in this jap part of the movie. its amazing how he understood this culture and that of mexicans and that of that tazarine. it even amazed me when i felt that the musical score on the ending of the film (jap father and daughter while camera pulling away) was an exact fit to the scene.

    the problem with criticism is that we often forget to appreciate the film, the story, and the point of view of the director. doesnt matter if he did good or not, at least he delivered it in a way he understood it for himself, and for most of us,anyways. we’ve got to dig deeper. i thought this film was boring too when i watched the first chapter. but i found out it was interesting after all, how scenes of stupidity are mostly present on most of the films that are being done today. even comedies. just watch boss’s daughter. youll know what i mean.

  • lacy

    i do think one element of the tower of babel that was communicated in this movie is that we are all one. at the tower of babel, humankind was scattered and given different languages. though we are separated by oceans and languages and socio-economic status and cultures, we still are inextricably linked.

    at the tower of babel, humanity was united in an evil purpose, and thus scattered and confused. even in our present fragmented lives, we still have great power to inflict evil and pain, be it ignorantly or unintentionally.

    at the same time, we also have power for good, which is increased when we come back together in unity. humanity was scattered, i believe, to thwart evil. but now, i believe, humanity is to be gathered together again, united for good rather than evil. one display of this in the film was pitt and blanchett being helped by the moroccan man and woman.

  • climber

    It seems everybody missed the fact that the American couple “got away” because she blamed him for the SIDS death of their baby. What else have we all missed?

  • Oh Yeah

    Skip this junk with Pedophillic undertones. Wanna see a great movie? See the British version of the movie “Revolver”. Not the dumbed down American Version. Brilliant Brilliant movie!!

  • zingzing

    you have to be joking.

  • roger nowosielski

    Three altogether disparate and disjointed stories with one connection, the glue, which holds them together – the rifle. Interesting concept, demonstrating how we’re all interconnected through even the most trivial of artifacts. A variation of sorts on The Butterfly Effect.

  • C. Stone

    Wow I ve read some of the comments around here, ppl writing that it is a bad movie because they couldnt get a message and that it is boring (because there are no special effects???) – this most be a joke? And shows how well they actually did with this movie – miscommunication is not only a theme in it but also works as the “code” first on a level of realization (we can only understand fragments, depending on which language we understand) and second, on a level of interpretation (many think the messages’ communicaton fails)

    I guess a lot of ppl who left comments on this forum should spend some time with literature in order to realize that complex works of art need intensive interpretation in order to be understood and do not easily deliver “a moral of the story” just like that. Maybe many also lack (cultural) empathy and imagination, personally I would not even need a connection between the stories, like in a good book it is up to the reader what s/he interprets in the story and how s/he connects the fragments and makes a meaning of this connection.

  • Taylor Davis

    You’re a poor excuse for a film blogger. If you really are too dumb to see the connotations behind this movie I invite you to watch Bambi. Maybe start you out on something easier to understand.