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Toronto Film Fest Preview! Moriarty Deciphers Inarritu's Brilliant BABEL!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

There are three guys right now who seem to be hitting their artistic stride at the same time, and what I find fascinating is how there seems to be the same sort of creative comraderie among them as there was among the giants of the ‘70s, making me wonder if this is part of the secret. Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu are all gifted filmmakers who have been doing interesting work up till now, but this year, each of them has a film coming out during the last four months of the year that could be said to be defining for who they are and who they want to be. That’s heady stuff, exciting times for artists. And to see it happen to these three guys at once, all three of them deserving it, it’s pretty exhilarating as a film fan.

Inarritu’s film is the first to hit the screen, opening in October and also playing the Toronto Film Festival soon. This may have won Best Director at Cannes, but it didn’t take the Palm D’Or, and if Ken Loach’s WHEN THE WIND SHAKES THE BARLEY is better than this, it’ll be the best film Loach has ever made. BABEL may feature a few movie stars in key roles, but this is anything but a typical Hollywood production. It is the organic next step in the fruitful collaboration between Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. I thought AMORES PERROS was a promising film, although a little rough around the edges. 21 GRAMS was a film that is really hard to sit through, but not because it’s poorly made. In fact, it’s because it’s so good at what it does that it’s a difficult watch. It just tells a story about pain and emotional shutdown, and as a result, it didn’t work on me in the same way that AMORES PERROS did. It didn’t connect with me the same way.

So walking into BABEL, I expected it to be well-made, but what I wasn’t expecting was the way the film emotionally devastated me. It is a powerful film experience, expertly acted on all fronts, and it makes an important point about the way we are all connected and the way we create the things that keep us apart. It speaks to the most basic things that unite us as human beings sharing a world.

Susan (Cate Blanchett) and Richard (Brad Pitt) are traveling together in Morocco. There’s a lot that goes unspoken between them in the film, and it’s never exactly clear what drove them to be in this spot at this time. They’re running from some problems, some recent pain, and they’re trying to figure out if they still fit together in any way. They remind me of the couple in Paul Simon’s haunting “Hearts & Bones,” staying adrift just ahead of the tidal wave of their marriage. When fate puts its finger on this couple in a random, horrible second that completely changes their lives, it leaves a ripple, and that ripple disrupts other lives in Morocco, in Los Angeles, in Mexico, in Japan. People who look at that amazing trailer for the film and write it off as “just another one of those movies like TRAFFIC and SYRIANA” are going to deny themselves a powerful emotional ride. This is not some detached cereberal exercise. This is a movie that connects immediately, that pulls you into each of the different lives we see, and when it wants to hurt you, it does it with the precision and force of a bullet wound.

At the film’s start, it seems like the storyline that is most disconnected from everything else is the one in Japan. Koji Yakusho is a fairly well-known Japanese actor, with films like CURE, THE EEL, PULSE, SÉANCE, and WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE to his credit, and his role here is offers up a side of him I don’t think I’ve seen in anything else. He plays the father of Chieko, a deaf girl, played by the riveting Rinko Kikuchi, who seems to be in a free fall of her own following the death of her mother. As the police hound her father for initially unexplained reasons, she’s watching girls her age experiment with their sexuality, but every time she meets a boy she’s attracted to, the sign language turns him off, marking her as damaged goods. Kikuchi’s performance is discomfiting stuff, edgy and dark and deeply sad. The way their storyline folds into the rest of the film just underlines the tragedy of things. Don’t expect a giant melodramatic bolt of lightning like in CRASH. This film reaches deeper, and it dares to be subtle and sober about the way it makes its points. The resolution of the Tokyo storyline has haunted me ever since I saw it a month and a half ago, and I’m nto even sure I can fully articulate what it is that hit me so hard.

Richard and Susan’s kids back in America are being watched by their Mexican housekeeper, who’s in the country illegally. She wants to go home to Mexico for one day for her son’s wedding, but there’s no one who can take the children. She sees no other choice but to take them with her, and the way things spiral out of control as a result is horrifying to contemplate as a parent. One wrong decision after another leading to something too awful to even consider. This was the material in the film that disturbed me the most viscerally, especially the idea that Susan and Richard are a world away during the entire horrible chain of events, unaware it’s even going on. It made me physically tense, like every nerve ending was tied in a knot. And just when it all gets too be too much to breathe, Inarritu cross-cuts to the story of two boys in Morocco, given a rifle by their father to use in chasing predators away from their small herd of goats. Again... he illustrates the way small choices snowball, and by the time one boy reaches a wrenching tearful epiphany, it’s impossible not to feel for them, no matter what they’ve done. When you talk about humanist filmmaking, this is a perfect example. I would hold this up next to the finest work of Satyajit Ray in the way it removes us from our own cultural context and effortlessly slips us into the skin of someone whose experience is completely outside our own. As Susan lays bleeding in some nameless Moroccan town, her husband desperately trying to find someone who can help, some way to get her back within the grasp of Western medicine, he practically crumples from the sheer frustration and powerlessness of it all. As our world becomes more interconnected, we begin to run up against the basic issue of common ground, of common language, of common experience. You can either see this world in terms of the things that make us different or the things that make us the same, and which one of those worldviews you embrace can change the world.

Rodrigo Prieto has a painter’s soul, and his work as cinematographer here helps Inarritu with his goal of making us feel each of these lives. And instead of painting each world as something totally different, as in TRAFFIC, Prieto underlines the idea that the same light shines on us all. Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione share the editing credit, and their feather touch keeps this from feeling like anything other than a cohesive whole. Finally, there’s the remarkable score by Gustavo Santaolalla, and his work on THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN have positioned him as one of the more orginal voices in film music right now, a distinction that will only be furthered by his contributions to this film.

I have no doubt this film will do well in its screenings at Telluride and Toronto, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is a film that will only play to festival crowds or to art house audiences. This is a film that could be understood implicity by anyone, any audience, and that’s the point. This film manages to break past language to speak directly to us in whatever common tongue we’ve all forgotten, and it does something that great art can do better than almost anything else: it unites. It left me with a remarkable high, and it’s one of the most compelling pictures I’ve seen so far this year.

I’ll be back with more of the reviews I’ve let back up tonight and tomorrow and all the way through this holiday weekend, so I hope I see you all back here then.

"Moriarty" out.

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