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Festival de Cannes 72 Countdown: Babel, 2006

We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

Babel, 2006

Prixde la mise en scène – Alejandro González Iñárritu

Prix du jury œcuménique

Prix Vulcain de l’artiste technicien – Stephen Mirrione

Alejandro González Iñárritu has not really faltered since his debut feature, Amores perros, in 2001. And I say that not claiming each and every one of his movies are perfect. They are not. But the consistency in his hard-edged, penetrating film-making, and the both alluring and devastating impact on the audience, is no mean feat.

Of course, the Mexican director recently won back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Director. First for Birdman in 2014, which also nabbed Best Picture, and then with The Revenant in 2015. In my humble opinion, if he were to win two Oscars, I feel 21 Grams and Babel are more deserving. The latter, of course, earned Iñárritu’s 2006 film a bagful of Oscar nominations – including Best Picture and Best Director. And this was a real contender.

Babel

Ultimately, you have to feel (discounting Martin Scorsese’s overdue Oscars), Babel was yet another film predominantly not in the English language seemingly unable to win Best Picture. Look, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon didn’t win. Neither did Life is Beautiful. Or, of course, Roma. And they were massively popular.

“The film-maker was clearly emotionally invested in this ambitious project.”

The Emigrants, Cries and Whispers, Il Postino, and Amour are also exceptional films that were never taken seriously as Best Picture winners. Incidentally, Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima sat alongside Babel in the 2006 Best Picture line-up.

That’s enough on the Oscars. Almost a year earlier, Iñárritu took Babel to the Cannes Film Festival. And with tough competition from the likes of Climates, Pan’s Labyrinth, Red Road, and Volver, he won the Best Director prize. Babel also was awarded the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and a Technical Grand Prize for Stephen Mirrione’s sharp editing. Iñárritu’s film missed out on the illustrious Palme d’Or to Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

Iñárritu went into the shooting of Babel, another socially-layered feast from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, embracing an understanding of who we all are, in a multicultural environment. The film-maker was clearly emotionally invested in this ambitious project. Directing the film through five different languages, and across three continents, Babel is an immersive concoction of emotive and geographic wilderness.

Four compelling narratives are somehow linked, yet drift magnetically down their own unknown paths. Like 21 Grams, though certainly not as head-spinning, the timelines are even off-center in places. But never do we feel as lost and isolated as those souls depicted on film. It’s a remarkable piece of film work and story-telling, one which continued to prove Iñárritu’s innate talent for thought-provoking, powerful movie-making.

“Babel is an audacious, exhausting film, but a wondrous achievement.”

The purchase of a rifle links the cluster of very different characters. A family dwelling on the dusty plains of Morocco; a married couple from California looking to escape a recent trauma; their children and the Mexican nanny entrusted to take care of them; and a lonely, frustrated teenager in Japan.

Babel

Events take an even bleaker turn, when the two Moroccan boys fire off shots from said rifle towards a bus far off in the distance. The hostility between the Americans, Susan and Richard, is now the least of their worries. Meanwhile, the nanny, Amelia, heads off to a wedding in Mexico, taking the children with her – having made a promise she would not leave them while the parents are away. And then in Japan, desperate for affection, and troubled by grief, deaf girl Chieko rebels, by defying her father and attempting to express herself sexually.

Iñárritu headed a rather grueling shoot, kind of fitting with the film’s dark, sweltering ambiance. The director was not afraid to speak his mind during production, when schedules were stretched, and the project several times had glimmers of collapse. Babel is an audacious, exhausting film, but a wondrous achievement as it drags us, the audience, across the varied landscapes – political, social, emotional etc.

And you can feel the efforts embroiled within Babel. That part of this tricky business we call film-making, can come crashing to a halt, should the make-up or costumes not be right; or the position of the sun means you only have a small window to film through; that closing off roads in Tokyo can cause pandemonium. Iñárritu was not shy in admitting how perturbed he was by the rigidness of Japan’s culture in parts. An alluring notion for the director, though, depicting this very social climate was essential to the film.

“It’s all shot beautifully, cascading the shifts in continents and dilemmas.”

As was the foreigner travelling abroad; the need to vacate everyday life for a while; the border issues between Mexico and the United States. Even working with children, a demographic that plays a huge part in Babel’s themes, has its tougher moments. It’s all shot beautifully, cascading the shifts in continents and dilemmas. Hats off too, to the editing, rolling the complex narrative smoothly across the film’s bumpy surface.

Babel

And the performances here are exceptional. Remarkable, but completely warranted, that Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza both earned nominations for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards.

Barraza wears a frantic heart on her sleeve as Amelia, pulled from one loyalty to another. At her very best as she reaches her limits, boiling in the desert, and heartbroken in the company of the authorities. And Kikuchi, is simply a revelation throughout. Driven by a longing for personal appreciation, Chieko is painfully eager to grow into adulthood, and beyond the agony of loss.

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