75 years ago, Isaac Babel was executed during Josef Stalin’s purges. The Russian poet, novelist, screenwriter and stage writer was famous for his works that examined the brutal treatment of Ukrainian and Jewish populations in “Red Cavalry” and “Odessa Stories,” as well as for throwing a satirical, skeptical and bitter sweet eye at the failed promises of the early Soviet Union.
The new documentary “Finding Babel” tells the story of Andrei Malaev-Babel, Babel’s grandson, who begins a journey to get a better sense of the writer, traveling to the various locations he wrote about, talking to analysts of his work, people who knew the man and attempting to find the many lost manuscripts that were left unaccounted for by the time the Soviet Union fell.
If there is one thing the documentary succeeds at, it is making Isaac Babel a sort of folk hero. From gorgeous statues to reverent words from various interviewees along the way to the massive scope Babel’s works take across Europe, there is no mistake the impact his work has had on Europe.
The narration of personal journal entries along with segments from his work add an ethereal quality to the entire documentary, with his words haunting every moment. The vast range of voices able to comment on the personal life of Babel gives him a much-needed human touch. After 75 years, “Finding Babel” serves to be an incredibly rich history lesson in the writer’s life and significance.
It’s also impressive to observe how diverse the film is in its investigation. It takes a round trip through France, Ukraine and Russia. Andrei searches for his grandfather’s grave, explores the well-preserved residences Babel lived in and peruses Odessa, the city from which one of his works is titled. Malaev-Babel also works diligently to get to the heart of the works on display, analyzing his stage works by working with actors, visiting the Jewish gravesites from the pogroms Babel wrote of and trying to find records of his grandfather’s arrest, torture and execution — a fate many artists of the time faced. The sheer time range covered in less than 90 minutes is impressive.
However, this wide range also serves as a major weakness. Given that there is so much to talk about and the creative team is committed to showing it all, the central focus frequently gets lost. There is a huge side story about Malaev-Babel directing one of his grandfather’s works and analyzing it, something that could be an entire film in itself that is randomly placed in the middle of this one.
The hanging thread of the missing manuscripts is largely forgotten throughout the story. And in an effort to get an incredibly in-depth look at Babel, his grandson is largely forgotten. What does his grandson get from this? Does he find understanding? Closure? It is clearly a deeply personal journey for him, but most of it is told through others. It is a shame because Andrei’s many moments of silence tell a million words as he looks upon the legacy left for him.
That being said, “Finding Babel” is a striking and beautifully shot outlook on a writer that, despite vicious efforts, would not be silenced. In a tumultuous political climate where politicians are actively encouraging fury against writers, journalists and artists, it is a story that still has weight today. Just don’t expect the most focused or realized film.
“Finding Babel” will premiere in theaters on Oct. 28.
Email Carter Glace at [email protected]