Criterion Prediction #18: Good Morning Babylon, by Alexander Miller
Title: Good Morning Babylon
Director: Piero and Vittorio Taviani
Cast: Vincent Spano, Joaquim de Almeida, Greta Scacchi, Desiree Nosbusch, Omero Antonutti, Bérangère Bonvoisin Désirée Nosbusch, and David Brandon
Synopsis: Vincent Spano and Joaquim de Almeida play Nicola and Andrea Bonanno, Tuscan-born architects who emigrate to America in the 1910s when their father’s stonemason firm goes bankrupt. The two brothers arrive in the new world and find their way into the movie business. The lure of Hollywood isn’t for glamour or fortune; these guys are craftsmen, they build things. Thanks to D.W. Griffith’s fascination with the Italian epic Cabiria and his proclivity for authenticity, he hires Nicola and Andrea for their skilled hands once he sees their work at an architecture exposition. Griffith is determined to get perfectly-sculpted elephants for the Babylon sequence in his film Intolerance. This charming tale of the immigrant experience charts the journey of Nicola and Andrea from their native Italy to America, and their lives leading up to their experience in World War I.
Critique: Pairing the production of Griffith’s Intolerance with a witty, metaphorical story of two brothers making their way in America is handled with a lighthearted touch that we don’t commonly associate with Italian films. Good Morning Babylon is one of those overlooked treats that feels like an American co-production, given the filmmaker’s air of familiarity depicting Hollywood’s silent era. Perhaps the reverence for the work of D.W. Griffith seems more authentic coming from the point of view of an outsider, as opposed to the apologetic overtones that are synonymous when we discuss Griffith here in America. Throughout Good Morning Babylon he is presented as a craftsman. What I love most about this movie is the seemingly infinite allegorical depth in this deceptively complex film. Historically, we associate the significant contribution from immigrant labor with America’s industrial workforce; here our attention is turned to its influence on the growing film business. The mass production of movies from the studios at this time was on par with a factory assembly line in the days that would be defined as Hollywood’s Golden Age. Very much a love letter to the creative endeavor, and to silent film, it reinforces that cinema is a cultural language we can all connect with, and Taviani’s reverence for the medium is humorous and affectionate. Spano, Almeida, and Scacchi deliver endearing performances, and Charles Dance is a surprising find as D.W. Griffith. Using history as a platform for their films, Piero and Vittorio Taviani’s Good Morning Babylon is evidence that movies can be intelligent and charming without being simplistic or pretentious.
Why it Belongs in the Collection? “Specializing in the distribution of important classic and contemporary films” is Criterion’s mission statement. However, some movies aren’t deemed “important” until they have received a Criterion release, meaning the Criterion brand usually defines them. And certain movies in the collection are more endeared to the Criterion catalog since they would otherwise be floating in video home purgatory. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Good Morning Babylon, a film that has little to no exposure on home video feels like it would neatly fit alongside titles that seem exclusive to the collection – Man Bites Dog, House, A Safe Place, or Spirit of the Beehive. One way or another every film in The Criterion Collection is special. But these films feel that much more precious because of the second life given to us by these beautiful restorations and features. Otherwise, we might not know about Victor Erice or Hiroshi Teshigahara, which would of course be a shame. Always an advocate for introducing new directors to the collection, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani would be great to see in the Criterion catalog, and Good Morning Babylon is, in my opinion, one of their best movies.