Representing both a literary and deeply personal travelogue, David Novack’s documentary Finding Babel tracks Andrei Malaev-Babel as he retraces the footsteps of his grandfather, famed Russian author Isaac Babel. Renowned for his short story collections Red Cavalry and The Odessa Tales, Babel ran afoul of Stalin’s repressive regime. Arrested in 1939, he was executed in 1940 and buried in a mass grave. The film serves as a concise biographical portrait and an excellent introduction to the writer’s works, excerpts of which are read by actor Liev Schreiber.
Bearing a strong resemblance to the grandfather he never knew, Malaev-Babel was extremely close to his grandmother, Antonina Pirozhkova, Babel’s widow, who died in 2010. Seen in interviews throughout the film, the elderly woman provides vivid reminiscences of her life with the author, her barely suppressed emotions making it clear that the passage of time has done little to ease her pain.
Malaev-Babel travels to Odessa, where his grandfather spent his youth and is still regarded as a national hero. While there, he attends a literary conference devoted to the writer’s work, and visits the apartment where Babel lived from age 15 to 30. Another stop on the itinerary is Paris, where Babel spent nearly a year at the height of his literary fame.
The film is more impressionistic than informative, with the anecdotes, although frequently colorful, not offering up a full biographical portrait of its subject. Left out, for instance, is the fact that Babel got in trouble with the authorities not only for his writings, which painted a less than glowing portrait of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, but also for his affair with the wife of the head of the NKVD, its security agency.
Nonetheless, the documentary provides a moving account of Babel’s travails, and particularly his writings. Schreiber’s powerful delivery of the prose, including excerpts from Babel’s 1920 diary, is accompanied by evocative animation, and we see a clip from a silent film adaptation of one of his works for which he wrote the screenplay. Malaev-Babel also drops in on a French theater troupe whose actors are rehearsing his grandfather’s 1935 play, Maria.
Although it will be best appreciated by those already familiar with Babel’s life and works, Finding Babel is sufficiently intriguing to provoke the uninitiated to learn more.
Distributor: 7th Art Releasing
Director/producer: David Novack
Screenwriters: David Novack, Andrei Malaev-Babel
Executive producers: Roger Waters, Alexis Zoullas
Directors of photography: Sam Henriques, Scott Shelley
Editors: Dylan Hansen-Fliedner, Kris Liem, David Novack
Composer: Lev Zhurbin
Not rated, 89 minutes