Film review: 'Finding Babel'
The somber and haunting documentary "Finding Babel" (world premiering during the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival) is an evocative look back at Isaac Babel, an acclaimed artist that also serves as a cautionary tale for the modern world.
In short: Andrei Malaev-Babel embarks on a personal journey across Ukraine, Russia and France to learn about the grandfather he never met - the Russian journalist, playwright and author Isaac Babel executed as a foreign spy by Josef Stalin's regime. (Watch the trailer)
Director David Novack pulls off an ambitious documentary. "Finding" introduces Babel (who is revered in Russia) to the Western world, while also bringing his words to life and making the author, who has been dead for almost seven decades, relevant to the modern world.
"Finding" exists with one foot in the past and one foot in the present. Andrei Malaev-Babel's journey moves the film forward, as he retraces the steps of his grandfather, visiting the towns and locations Isaac Babel wrote about almost a century earlier. Isaac's own words, narrated by Liev Schreiber from Isaac's personal diaries, are juxtaposed upon Andrei's journey. Some of Isaac's beautiful and specific descriptions still eerily mirror the landmarks Andrei visits. Other times, all traces of the places Isaac describes are completely wiped away - buried by the Stalinist regime bent on eradicating evidence of any wrong doings of the Communist Party.
A simple, if straightforward, history lesson on why Isaac Babel was important to Russia could have been a serviceable documentary. But his grandson's journey makes this a personal story. Layering Isaac's own words against the events of his day, notably the rise of Stalin's power, gives "Finding Babel" context and substance.
Final verdict: This is an eye-opening look at the plight of a man who criticized the party he was loyal to and paid the ultimate price. His story is not merely a one-off anecdote about Isaac Babel - this is a timeless warning to all of the dangers of any totalitarian regime.
"Finding Babel" is not yet rated and has a running time of 89 minutes. This film screened at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival.