I first saw Babel at Telluride last year, and I remember how nervous director Alejandro González Iñnáritu was as he introduced the film for one of its first (it may have even been the first) screenings. He talked in his intro about how he set out with Babel to make a film about the ways in which we are different, and ended up making a film about the ways in which we are alike, and how the borders that separate us are less about physical borders between countries, and more about the borders we create within.
Babel's Paramount Vantage 2-Disc Collector's edition comes out today, so if you missed seeing what all the fuss was about during the film's theatrical run (it was nominated for a bevy of Oscars as well), now's your chance to see the film in the comfort of your own home. Babel follows four stories tied loosely together through the common thread of a woman shot by a sniper on a bus in a remote part of Morocco. The woman, Susan (Cate Blanchett) and her husband, Richard (Brad Pitt) are in Morocco taking a trip together in an attempt to heal their marriage, which has fallen apart in the wake of the death of their infant son. They've left their two young children, Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning) back home in California in the care of their loving Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barazza).
Amelia is wholly devoted to her young charges, and has made many personal sacrifices for the sake of the family she works for, but when Susan is shot and their return home is delayed, Amelia faces a wrenching choice: She cannot leave Mike and Debbie, but her only son is getting married in Mexico and she wants to go to his wedding. When Richard's back-up plan for Susan's sister to come and relieve Amelia doesn't pan out, Richard, distraught over his wife's life-threatening injury, commands Amelia to miss her son's wedding and stay with his children. Faced with having to miss the wedding, Amelia makes a decision that will have profound consequences: She takes the children with her into Mexico to attend her son's wedding.
We also meet the person responsible for shooting Susan -- not a ruthless terrorist, after all, but simply a bored young boy given a rifle by his father in order to help protect the family's goat herd from predators. A world away, we meet a deaf-mute Japanese girl ( Rinko Kikuchi) whose rift with her father over her mother's death is causing her to act out in dangerous ways. Iñnáritu skillfully ties all these storylines together into a broader theme of communication and the ways in which language, words, and our own perceptions both separate us and bring us closer together.
This DVD set includes the feature presentation on one disc, and a second disc that contains a feature-length "making of" documentary about the filming of Babel. The latter is almost as interesting as the film itself, with extensive behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Iñnáritu during the filming. It really gives a feel for what a massive undertaking Babel was; the film shot on location in Japan, Mexico, Morocco and Tunisia, and in each location the crew faced unique difficulties. Production was shut down in Tokyo, for instance, when the crew was stopped by police for blocking traffic during a shoot. Iñnáritu's frustration at having to work around local laws and restrictions comes through palpably in this behind-the-scene's footage; he's going to shoot the film the way he wants it shot, and rules and local authorities be damned. While it's understandable that he wanted to get his shots the way he wanted them, I can't imagine that filmmakers who come in and run roughshod over a country's rules make it any easier for those who need to shoot in those locations for future films.
Iñnáritu had better luck with Mexico, where the authorities were willing to shut down several lanes of the border crossing so the crew could film the scenes there. In Morocco, the director was dealing with a large cast of non-actors who didn't speak English, so he had to communicate with his cast through translators (in the case of young Said Tarchani, who plays Ahmed, the boy whose random act of shooting his rifle leads to repercussions he could never have imagined, a woman, presumably his mother, is constantly present yelling at the boy to perform better). There's also an interesting bit in there about how Iñnáritu had to take star Brad Pitt aside and ask him to stop improvising his lines, because the non-professional actor in the scene with him, who didn't speak much English to begin with, couldn't follow the scene with Pitt constantly changing the lines. In Japan, Innaritu faced different issues, particularly in shooting the opening volleyball game sequence with a cast made up of mostly deaf-mute athletes in a volleyball tournament.
As for the specs, the main feature is on widescreen enhanced for 16:9 TVS; the sound is in Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround / English 2.0 Surround / French 5.1 Surround, with subtitles in English and Spanish. There's no fancy box , but the cover art's a nice montage of images from the film. What's particularly interesting about the behind-the-scenes second disc is how it emphasizes the very ideas that Babel is about -- communication, cultural and personal barriers, the ways in which language both draws us together and tears us apart. It's worth buying the DVD just to see the behind-the-scenes feature; if nothing else, you'll view the film itself with different eyes, having seen all that went into the making of it.