Film

Moving Lit Doc ‘Finding Babel’ Traces the Mysterious Life and Death of the Great Isaac Babel

by

This lit-doc travelogue gains in power, insight, and urgency as it journeys. Andrei Malaev-Babel sets off to Eastern Europe to trace the life of his grandfather, Isaac Babel, whose Odessa Stories and Red Cavalry constitute one of the slimmest oeuvres of any of the twentieth century’s great writers.

Both books, collections of stories, were drawn from Babel’s life, and David Novack’s film follows Malaev-Babel as he passes through the places Babel described, searching for “echoes.” Malaev-Babel’s trips to Odessa (where Babel grew up) and Paris (where he visited after winning an international reputation) prove fruitful: Here is the apartment in which Babel wrote those books; here are actors rehearsing a production of Babel’s 1935 play, Maria, an unstinting broadside against Soviet corruption.

In Paris, Malaev-Babel faces the question of why Babel never emigrated from the Soviet Union, where authorities shut Maria down — and where he always faced the fate that eventually befell him: execution by the state. In a piercing interview from 2003, Babel’s widow, Antonina Pirozhkova, declines to recount Babel’s 1939 arrest. Malaev-Babel and the filmmakers move on to Lubyanka Prison and the KGB archives, viewing the files that Stalin’s goons maintained on the author.

Throughout, we get brief readings of Babel’s tender, unsparing stories, illustrated with scenic animation. They’re no substitute for reading Babel yourself, but they honor him.

Finding Babel
Directed by David Novack

7th Art Releasing

Opens October 28, Cinema Village