Film Review: Finding Babel

A glowingly rewarding investigation into the life of a great Russian writer who met a most untimely and tragic end.
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Although only really known for just two works, Odessa Stories and Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel is reckoned as one of Russia’s greatest writers of the 20th century. David Novack’s doc Finding Babel immerses us deep in Russian culture and history as he tracks Babel’s grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel, on his journey to search for information on his eminent forebear. It’s an absorbing investigation that takes us to the writer’s native Odessa as well as Paris, which he visited after becoming renowned, where present-day actors are rehearsing his 1935 play Maria.

The mournfully handsome Andrei proves a more than fit, highly intelligent and sensitive guide and protagonist, whether listening intently to fond reminiscences of Grandpa, or being outrageously manhandled by Putin-era thugs when he tries to visit the hushed-up execution site. Up until then, Andrei’s search has been fruitful and ably supported by legions of Babel admirers, both prominent scholars and average Slavic Joes on the street who read him in school. Shortly before this disturbing incident, a woman is heard to mutter how she misses the old Soviet days when at least writers were respected. This dark note gets repeatedly echoed in the film, in which the learned observe that the repressive evil of the Stalinist era has never truly been resolved, and will continue to inevitably and frighteningly arise.

A sense of the total artist that was Babel clearly emerges, a man whose life was inextricably linked with his deathless work. Actress Marina Vlady, still as lovely as she was in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her..., reads eloquently from Maria, and observes how men like Babel simply burn themselves up with their intensity while alive. Particularly disarming is the great Nobel-nominated poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who resides in an art-filled dacha in the artistic community of Peredelkino, where Babel was arrested. While extolling the palpable pleasure reading him affords one from the “delicious writing,” he also makes mention of Cocteau once caressing his thigh, “but very politely.”

The filmmaker’s greatest get is Babel’s widow, Antonina Pirozhkova, once known as “the most beautiful woman in Moscow.” Aged but as sharp as a tack, she makes the past come alive with her thoughtful, pithy words. The film climaxes with her reluctant reminiscence of Babel’s tragic finale, but even then, with a memory which deeply pains her to this day, she is also able to recall the humor which always sustained him, as his work lives on, sustaining new generations.

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