Movies, books, poetry, dirty jokes

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Rinko Kakuchi. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

When you bat an eyelid in Bangkok, a tower block could crumble in, say, Khartoum. Your smallest action in Bang Rak might trigger, among other bad things, a massacre in Eastern Europe or a drought in Patagonia. Your carelessness could provoke a tragedy of the saddest kind, ruining families and civilisation, because everything is dependent on everything else, because that's the unbendable law of God, of the stock market, of the relativity theory, of ambitious filmmakers. And no, I'm not talking about global warming.

Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won best director award at Cannes 2006 for his grandiose film Babel, and his presence will surely give Oscar punters a run for their money if they've already pinned their hopes on either Grandpa Clint or Uncle Marty winning the statuette. That's because Babel is dressed up and gift-wrapped to win awards; it's a film that spells the word IMPORTANT on its every gene, with its God-like point of view and stories that mean to dig up the core, a rotten core to boot, of all humanity.

Inarritu is a formidably talented filmmaker whose previous two features, the gorgeously grimy Amores Perros and the wrenching 21 Grams, employed the disorientating jigsaw effect by compartmentalising several strands of narratives, breaking them up into short vignettes that slowly assemble into one whole shiny piece. The streetwise bravado of Amores Perros sucks us in and makes it work, while 21 Grams projects a heartfelt aftertaste because the drama has its impact. Inarritu clearly subscribes to the idea of cinema as a vessel of raw emotions, as testified by his chilling 11-minute short in the compilation 11''09'01 marking the Sept 11 tragedy.

Now with Babel, the director's colossal talent still stands out, sometimes overshadowing his characters. His preferred technique of chopping up his narratives into fragmented blocks this time seems like a self-indulgent conceit, his globe-spanning multi-stories more like a calculated dealing than a spiritual conviction on human interdependency. Inarritu shuffles a deck of cards and spreads each one on the table, then he deftly gathers the pieces up and re-arranges them in a neat order. You admire the procedure, though it doesn't really make you care.

The grand design of Babel, which takes place in Morocco, Tokyo, LA and a Mexican border town and involves four families in those locations, is spun from a dastardly rifle. Sons of a Moroccan sheep herder play with their father's newly acquired weapon. Their aimless shot hits an American tourist, played by Cate Blanchett, who's travelling with her estranged husband, played by Brad Pitt. This accident triggers a chain of events that leads us down, down, and further down the chasm of irredeemable tragedy. Unable to come home, Pitt asks his Mexican maid to take care of his young children, and the maid, along with her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal), decides to bring the white kids along on their trip to a wedding party across the border in Mexico _ a seemingly harmless action that becomes an unwise decision.

Then the tale jumps to Tokyo. Here we discover the identity of the rifle's original owner, a stern-faced businessman and part-time hunter who nurses a sullen relationship with his disenchanted daughter (Rinko Kakuchi). Flashing her panties in public to mark her existence in the world, this girl is perhaps the only character that inspires genuine sympathy in the entire film.

Babel is meant, of course, as a dramatised essay on miscommunication, presented in crisp, breathtaking cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. It has its power, but it is not a poem, since it leaves nothing to the imagination. Its philosophy on intricate and invisible human interconnection is more or less an endorsement of the notion of predetermined destiny, and with my limited knowledge I simply wonder if we should watch a movie, any movie, to learn that we're born with the ability to control our own lives despite the situation, or a movie should tell us that our courses are pre-determined by the actions of some strangers somewhere far away.

Charting the courses of the characters' lives is no doubt a job of screenwriters and directors. Catholic or Calvinist or Buddhist, they're all playing God, and playing God is part of the game. But to some directors, playing God also means acknowledging God -- to humble oneself before a greater force, an all-encompassing cosmic energy whose entirety cinema can only try to replicate, without success. Directors like Bergman, Bresson or Ozu always evoked the presence of God, sometimes questioning him, sometimes bowing before him, but always reminding us that something is always beyond our grasp. The films of those directors are poems, because they let us ponder bigger questions. Babel only gives us answers, which is satisfying though its impact barely lasts.

It is unholy of me, but I'm reminded of another movie I've recently seen that's pertinent to this God issue. Little seen elsewhere aside from its country of origin Heremias, Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess is a mesmerising religious allegory made by independent Filipino director Lav Diaz. The nine-hour monochrome movie concerns the lonely journey of a poor peasant who's tested by hostile nature, corrupt government officials, devils in the guise of men, and maybe by his god. The image of the peasant dragging his cow through muddy puddles and his futile attempt to do what his conscience tells him is the right thing to do represents a spiritual poetry on the ongoing trial of humanity.

Heremias is a film that believes both in the power of cinema and in God. Babel is a beautiful picture that believes only in itself.

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