It's Closing Gala time once more. Maybe I've just been to too many of these things, but they don't seem to have the allure that they used to, particularly for the casual non-celebrity attendee. Time was, you got to rub shoulders with the great and the good as you took that long stroll down the red carpet: nowadays, the celeb cars approach the cinema via a different route, while the rest of us are herded via the Dosser Kibbutz of Leicester Square itself to the smallest stretch of carpet it's possible to get away with. Still, I managed to shoot some video on my phone of the walk (resisting the temptation to happy-slap Jason Solomons as he interviewed Sandra Hebron by the door), and had it posted on Moblog by the time BFI DIrector Amanda Nevill was introducing the proceedings.
As usual with the Closing Gala, there's about an hour's worth of business to get through before the actual film. A few minutes in the seat checking this year's meagre allocation of freebies: programme, water, chocolate, and a bag of Butterkist popcorn that suggests someone somewhere has no idea what sort of film we're watching tonight. Then we officially kick off with another fine performance from Donald MacKenzie and his massive swelling organ. The various Festival awards are presented: Red Road gets the BFI Sutherland Trophy, Lola gets the FIPRESCI, producer Mark Herbert receives the UK Film Talent Award for his work on This Is England, and The Lives Of Others picks up the Satyajit Ray Award. Finally, director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and star Gael Garcia Bernal take to the stage, and tell the fabulous story of the last time they appeared in this venue, when Bernal impersonated Inarritu at the BAFTA Awards.
And then the film starts. Babel is the third film in what Inarritu's calling a loosely linked trilogy. Like its predecessors, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, it's a multi-stranded narrative, again based around the impact of a car accident on the lives of several seemingly unconnected people. Okay, I'm stretching the definition of 'car accident' to cover the collision of a bus with a bullet, but you get the idea. From this one incident, the narrative splits into four separate strands. Two of those stories are set in Morocco: one following the two kids with the rifle, the other following the American tourists (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) who find themselves on the receiving end. Meanwhile (or thereabouts), in America, a nanny (Adriana Barraza) is taking two children on an unexpected trip to Mexico: while in Japan, a young deaf-mute girl (Rinko Kikuchi) is having family problems of her own.
The links between the story strands are fairly flimsy, when you get down to it: so much so that each of the stories could almost stand independently. As a result, Babel is probably the most conventionally structured film of Inarritu's trilogy, aside from some vagueness about the timescales within which these events happen. What's more important is the overall theme of the relationships between children and parents. There may be a secondary theme here as well, one which is interesting given the amount of Paramount's money that has presumably gone into the film: of all the nationalities represented in Babel, the Americans come out looking the worst. They're petulant tourists who think the world revolves around them, or intransigent government officials who enforce the rules regardless of the human cost, or whiny children who burst into tears whenever things don't go their way. (Okay, that last one may be slightly callous. But as in 21 Grams, the movie is so relentlessly downbeat that you desperately search for any signs of humour: and the farcical events and misunderstandings of the Mexican adventure make it, effectively, Babel's comic relief.)
It's beautifully acted by all concerned, with an especially brave performance by Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko, the deaf-mute girl: her story is the most interesting of the four, as writer Guillermo Arriaga leaves several tantalising gaps for the audience to fill in. The stories overall have a more direct emotional impact than they do in, say, 21 Grams, where the intense fragmentation of the narrative acts as a distancing device. And you've got to admire the sheer scale of Babel as an enterprise, as it hops repeatedly between four countries without pausing to draw breath. And yet, somehow, the film doesn't wow you the way that its predecessors did. Maybe we're used to Innaritu's storytelling style by now, or maybe he's hoping the global scope of the film will help distract viewers from the fact that he doesn't seem to have very much to say this time.
Babel should be applauded for many things, not least its ambition, but it leaves a vague dissatisfaction for reasons that I haven't been able to quite put my finger on yet. If it turns up on the bill for VidBinge 2007 the way Innaritu's previous two films did, I may get back to you on that.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Dark Blue, Almost Black
The Cineaste - Jorge lives with, and cares for, his dad, who is very ill. (Hang on, haven’t we been here before? – like in The Year After, Leon...) Maybe it was a strong sense of deja vu and familiarity that made me unable to get excited about this film.
Jorge has just landed a good business degree and is on the verge of a well-paid career. But then his dad has a big stroke, and with no-one else in the family home (Jorge’s brother is in prison, his mum never even gets referenced), Jorge his resigned to look after his dad – a demanding task - and to re-evaluate his career situation.
We then get to see various aspects of Jorge’s life – his brother in prison, his mate Ismael (cue stereotypical laddish jokes – how boring), and a (girl?)-friend with whom he’s had a lengthy on/off relationship who returns after working in Germany. There were mildly clever scenes but unfortunately plenty was unoriginal and predictable – Jorge and Ismael spying from the top of a flat into a masseur’s salon who offers sexual favours to his (male) clients – then Ismael discovers his dad’s a client – then Ismael himself becomes a client.
The characterisation was lazy and vague and I found it difficult to have much sympathy for them. The most normal and sympathetic character was Ismael’s mum, who probably had the smallest part in the whole film. Now much of this could have been redeemed with some cracking humour – but there was almost none. It was as if director Daniel Sanchez Arevalo wanted the film to slot into the Cheeky Spanish Comedy genre but didn’t have the confidence to go through with the cheeky comedy bit. Some interesting scenarios, but overall a lame disappointment. (And what’s the title supposed to mean? It doesn’t.)
Our Daily Bread
The Cineaste - This was an astonishing piece of film about food production. Filmed largely in and around Germany and Austria between October 03 and October 05, it shows many different scenarios in the preparation and production of various foodstuffs from meat and fish to fresh produce.
It started with shots of inside a large greenhouse – later shown to be filled with vegetables. It took about ten minutes or so for me to realise that there wasn’t going to be any commentary. Indeed the entire film was without commentary or accompaniment. Then there were scenes of young chicks, going through a conveyor-belt process – literally being fired along a conveyor belt, just as if they were an inanimate commodity rather than a living animal.
Some scenes quite harrowing – the slaughter of cows and pigs, and machines for filleting them (we were warned about this in the programme notes) – and either side of me there were some visible flinches from young women.
But the point that really came across is how totally mechanised the whole mass-production process is – filleting machines, machines to sweep up young chicks to usher them onto a sort of conveyor belt that then spurts them into containers – just about every process has a machine to do the work. (As an aside, but very relevant to this, I’ve recently read a book called We Want Real Food by Graham Harvey, which raises the whole issue of food production, in which the author makes a very good argument for the case that a lot of problems with the western world’s 21st century diet are not so much what we eat but how it is prepared.)
A rare personal touch was provided by shots of immigrant African workers picking cucumbers (a process that isn’t – yet! – mechanised) and then we see them at home afterwards (possibly in a hostel) cooking a meal with the TV in the background showing sport (Eurosport – LIVE!).
There were one or two shots of workers taking a break and eating – but again no dialogue. A brave and thought-provoking film.
Bandits of Orgosolo
The Cineaste - Generally speaking my guideline rule of thumb during the LFF is to give Treasures from the Archives a miss – after all I may be missing that quirky east European number which may never see the light of day again in this country. But then Vittorio de Seta isn’t your typical Treasures from the Archives director. In fact not only had I not seen any of his films before, I’d never even heard of him until perusing the LFF programme. And not surprising, since the BFI bod who introduced this screening reckoned his films haven’t been screened in Britain since the 1970’s. I was fascinated to see what we were going to get.
Bandits of Orgosolo is a mesmeric account of a time and life a million miles away from 21st century urban living. It looks at farmers living a very straightforward and uncomplicated life, eking out a living, living according to the rules of the land.
Michele and his young brother Giuseppe are humble sheep farmers. One day, after tending to their herd, they return to their modest hut to find a couple of bandits on the run are taking shelter in it. Mildly wary, Michele asks them what they’re going to do – “don’t worry”, they reassure him, they’ll be moving on that night. Only before nightfall the police can be seen approaching. The bandits flee. Michele hides the remains of a carcass, stolen by the bandits for food, in his hut. The police find it and implicate him its theft. In the ensuing chaos one of the hiding bandits shoots dead a policeman. Michele is unsurprisingly assumed to be the killer and he and his brother are forced on the run with their herd of sheep.
You can interpret a number of points from this film – how a single misunderstood situation can have ruinous consequences on an individual (and his family); or indeed the importance to these farming folk of a supportive tight-knit family (Michele and Giuseppe have family in town, who they turn to for help). But an image/theme you just can’t ignore is the simple lifestyle of these men, unencumbered by the trappings of materialistic success. And how important is their innate ability to understand the land they indirectly live off – where the paths go to cross the inhospitable terrain, where there is water, where there are pastures for their flock to graze on. Shot in black and white, there were some fabulous shots of the wild and desolate mountains of Sardinia.
This was wonderful stuff. Hailed by Martin Scorsese, de Seta paints a languid, neorealistic picture which was awe-inspiring to watch.