Good Morning, Babylon presents a charming idea for a film that somehow never quite achieves its promise, despite the 1987 film itself being constantly watchable and interesting, sometimes even fascinating.
The idea is brilliant: Two Italian artisans, Nicola (Vincent Spano) and Andrea Bonnano (Joaquim de Almeida), come to America in 1915 seeking their fortunes, which they finally find by creating the elephant statues for D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance.
The choice of Griffith’s legendary film and, most especially, that film’s Babylonian set is inspired; that set is perhaps the most iconic and indelible image in the history of silent film (Chaplin to one side). People who have never seen Intolerance know its visual backdrop and have likely seen the famous traveling shot excerpted in documentaries. Even today, Griffith’s Babylon is awe inspiring in a way that state-of-the-CGI-art technical jiggery-pokery never can quite manage.
And Babylon makes good use of that set and scores nicely as concerns its construction. The film also does a pretty decent job of capturing Griffith in legendary mode as a cinematic visionary — thanks in no small part to the performance of Charles Dance. But there’s a curious detachment to it all that keeps our emotions at arm’s length (something that seems particularly odd in a film about two brothers made by two brothers). Scenes that ought to be charming (the boys catching fireflies for the girls they’re trying to impress) or exciting (the burning of their prototype Babylonian elephant) register as ideas without much actual feeling.
There’s also a heavy-handedness to the film’s symbolism that — like its last act’s descent into melodrama, which is also prefigured symbolically — works against its generally whimsical tone. Good Morning, Babylon is finally a very mixed bag that succeeds more as a depiction of early filmmaking and the magic of the movies than as human drama. But in that successful capacity, it’s one of the best attempts — similar to Peter Bogdanovich’s underrated Nickelodeon and Ken Russell’s Valentino — to capture that world.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke