Here’s an important editor’s note: I wrote 75% of this review probably about a year or two ago. Why I waited so long to get this out, I am not sure. I was perhaps waiting to release other reviews before this one. But seeing that the ‘2007 Movies List’ will likely never get finished (at least not in the original fashion I had intended), I need to at least salvage and publish this post. As always, comments are welcome.
I have been talking about this movie ever since I first watched it. It happens to be the newest released movie of my Top 30. It is one that has deeply affected me, and in many ways would break the #1 spot. For now, it rests at an almost equal spot of #5.
Roger Ebert believes the director of this film is trying to expound upon the viewers this message: “When we are strangers in a strange land, we can bring trouble upon ourselves and our hosts.” I couldn’t have put it more perfectly. In Ebert’s context, of course, he may not be talking about humanity (“we”) or the Earth (“strange land”), but I certainly am. I think Christianity teaches me that we are strangers when we live on this Earth. It’s not perfect. We’re not perfect. We don’t know how to act appropriately. We don’t even know what that is all the time. Keeping these things in mind, I review the movie, “Babel”.
A comment on iMDB’s website submitted by a user on this movie tells something quite interesting on what effect this movie can have on people. The user, alanbittencourtx, gives a short but insightful review of the movie. More or less, he gives his reaction to the movie. He writes how a particular scene (that I won’t mention for fear of spoiling) has “become part of my nightmares.” He goes on to say that he gives the movie a 10/10 score because he came to the conclusion that “the film is a masterpiece.” Now, I’m not here to tout another’s opinion, but I will agree with it. At the same time, I wanted to share this final quote from his comment-the final sentence to end the review, and to begin mine: “To be disturbed, I mean deeply disturbed, is a strange experience and I suspect it has something to do with being confronted by the truth.”
What is truth? I could say it’s something we all have to figure out. But like most Christians, I believe I’ve found it. Is it wrong to share some form of that truth? No, though it might be considered intolerant by some for me as a Christian to share about Christianity. What about a movie like this? This movie is quite offensive, in many ways. That’s because the director is trying to tell us something. And to do it, he has to push buttons, and challenge our thinking. The movie’s tagline is “Listen”, and I think the movie itself begs the question, “Are we really listening?”
With the idea that the director has to offend to challenge thinking, I think about one part of this movie, and that is the presence of nudity. The MPAA describes it as “graphic nudity,” though they add the word “some” in front of that when describing the movie’s reason for the R rating. Well, it certainly is not prolonged, but there is definitely “some.” The point of this review is not to argue my conviction that nudity should never be shown in a movie, but I did want to briefly mention what I believe on this. In short, the author (director) should not have to compromise the fact that a character is, in fact, nude in the storyline to prevent us from seeing nudity, but rather the author should completely avoid the showing of nudity in the film and depict the fact that the character is nude nonetheless. I hope this gets the idea across. In other words, the character needed to be nude in order for that character, the story, and other characters around her to progress. But the director did not need to show her nudity, and in some sense, her own shame.
Philip Graham Ryken wrote in his book titled, “Art for God’s Sake” that, “God can use trangressive art to awaken the conscience and arouse a desire for a better world. But as a general rule, such artwork does not reveal the redemptive possibilities of a world that, although fallen, has been visited by God and is destined for his glory” (13). I agree that by the end of “Babel”, this sad fact seems to hold true. I found that the movie essentially shows the price of sin in this fallen world. However, the movie never presents any reason to turn to God. That is disconcerting when the conclusion of the multiple plots screams for the need of a Savior. The discerning Christian will hopefully pick up on that.
David Mathis writes on June 9th, 2008 in John Piper’s blog, “Being crushed with guilt can be good. Psalm 51 teaches us what it’s like and how to be crushed with guilt well. Christians get discouraged. We sin and feel miserable about it. But we are connected by faith to Jesus. This shapes how we think and feel about our sin and guilt. Being a Christian means being broken. It marks the life of God’s happy children until they die. Brokenness is the flavor of Christian joy and praise and witness.” The key point is that these people’s reactions to sin won’t match that of a Christian’s. Therefore, the ending should be rather depressing. We should expect somebody to get hurt by all this sin.
Consequently, Dr. Paul Kuritz states in his book, “The Fiery Serpent”, that a work (like a movie) should make people “reconsider the kingdom in which we live and the gods which we serve” (29). I believe that “Babel” accomplishes that. Would you really do any of the things that the characters did in “Babel”, now that you see the consequences of those actions? That’s what “Babel” does-it shows the audience the pain that one suffers from sin. That should be a sign to anyone that it is not the right path to live.
My hope is that the Biblical title will get people to open up the Bible and read Genesis, where the true story of the Tower of Babel is. I hope those people’s curiosities are piqued and they will be able to discover the redemptive nature of God along the way. That is much of a stretch, but the title accomplishes that. What’s really interesting is that there is no mention of the word “Babel” in the movie and there really is no reference to that event, which makes sense after watching it, of course. It’s similar to “Magnolia” which has no suggestion of magnolias and I don’t recall that word ever being spoken in that movie.
With all this talk about Christianity, one may wonder about the qualities of the movie itself-especially because the movie probably distinguishes itself from Christianity anyways. In a sense, “Babel” is one of the most oxymoronic movies ever. Why? Some scenes feel too long, but some scenes don’t feel long enough. It pushes too many buttons, but in some sense it doesn’t push enough. What is probably well and obvious now is that the movie feels like it exudes a Christian message, though the product itself is very much different from Christianity.
To think of this movie as only spiritual is also, perhaps, a misstep. I did very obviously get a spiritual message out of this movie, but this message would mean nothing without great production values. On that level, I definitely feel it should have won the Oscar for, at the very least, Best Supporting Actress. Rinko Kikuchi truly poured her heart out into the performance of a deaf-mute girl living in modern Japan. The acting is good all-around, which makes the tight editing and original script all the better. Roger Ebert incorrectly predicted that “Babel” would win Best Picture-a rarity for the esteemed critic. As he said, the Academy members probably want to vote for an important film.
Important is a good word to describe “Babel”. As I close this lengthy ‘review’ of sorts, I want to have you think about what we want to have movies do for us. I’ve heard it said that if a movie can entertain, then it has done its job. I might correct that and say that if a movie can enlighten us, then it has achieved something great. “Babel” has not only opened my eyes to unique filmmaking, but also a direction that many people take in their lives and the consequences of this. This is the first ‘Hollywood’ movie where the characters don’t simply get away with their actions. The director puts them in reality, and forces the viewer to watch and understand the gravity of each situation and each choice that is made. To that end, “Babel” has done the art of filmmaking a great service. I can only hope that filmmakers will continue to create and produce, and write and direct movies with as much candor as “Babel”.