11 films made by 11 directors from 11 different countries working with “complete artistic freedom” tackling contrasting experiences concerning the tragic event. A mouth full, but an admirable goal considering the circumstances. Amazingly, most of the films are a success, especially the three standouts – Samira Makhmalbaf’s opening breath of desert air about an Afghan school teacher attempting to relay the massive scope of the disaster to her students, Idrissa Ouedraogo’s charismatic comedy concerning a group of school boys who think they see Bin Laden in Burkino-Faso, and finally Mira Nair’s heartbreaking story of a Muslim mother whose son goes missing after the towers fall, only to watch the media and the F.B.I. call him a terrorist. Other directors like Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, and Amos Gitai also make an impact with vastly different points of view, using genre as a springboard for emblematic tensions ripe with drama. But there’s a stunning theme of displacement connecting each film, a relentless similarity running parallel to the tragedy unfolding in New York City. It’s not surprising that the American entry, directed to the cinematic edge by Sean Penn, tells of an elderly man (the great Ernest Borgnine) entrenched in darkness, whose sad revelation of loneliness only comes as the towers fall. Have American’s always been this isolationist? Possibly, but September 11 goes to great lengths to jar the viewer (no matter the country) from misjudgment and fear and toward something resembling global compassion.
I remember watching Amores Perros, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s breakthrough film, for the first time and feeling like I was discovering a raw cinematic force, a blatant push toward uber-violent social realism, taking the Tarantino style of storytelling and twisting it around and around, showing the brutal consequences of such methods and subject matter outside the realm of ironic American angst. 21 Grams, Inarritu’s English language debut, took this style a step beyond, creating a relentless narrative of pain and suffering, an obvious beat down of any subtelty in acting or narrative. His latest film Babel, an international offering starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchet among others, shows surprising nuance in ways 21 Grams does not, highlighted by moments of brilliant directing that attempt to transcend the familiar and contrived screenplay it has for a core. Babel, while not the crucial political or social powder keg it wants to be, harkens back to Inarritu’s interest in individuals of varying classes seen to devastating effect in Amores Perros. The dynamic scenes with Chieko (the heartbreaking Rinko Kikuchi), the deaf-mute teenage daughter of a Japanese hunter, displays Inarritu’s interest in disappointment, an overlooked theme in both Amores Perros and Babel. Chieko’s main source of pain stems from her inability to connect with boys her age. The best sequence in the film shows Chieko meeting and hanging out with a group of boys, having a great time, all the typical scenes of adolescence, building toward a romantic interlude. They all enter a nightclub, Inarritu cutting back and forth between master shots of the hypnotic club atmosphere, and Chieko’s silent POV. It’s an uneasy clash of Chieko’s personal vision and the mass hysteria of the teenage lifestyle she’s apart of. Later, when she sees her best friend kissing the boy she wanted, her disappointment overtakes all other emotions. Inarritu wants us to see how unprepared modern day youth can be in dealing with disappointment. The rise of individualism has given the feeling of manifest destiny, especially in First world countries, and like Chieko, sometimes we don’t now how to deal with this sudden rupture in pattern or expectation. Babel shows once again why Inarritu is a major talent, but also proves his gritty camera work and brilliant blocking need a worthy script for support. With Babel, Arriaga’s script feels familiar, worn out, in need of a change of pace, his best attributes better represented in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. These guys are too talented to spin the same wheel over and over again.