Veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s new film 11 minutes is an enthralling and parsimonious retelling of one of the Western canon’s oldest tales, the Tower of Babel. The film is paradoxically both vivid and vapid, combining sleek photography, crisp editing and a well-argued thesis on the modern city with intentionally boring stock characters and ludicrous plot contrivances.

The fable of the Babelians describes humanity living in a single city and speaking a single language. These people took advantage of their unity to construct a tower so tall it spanned all the way to heaven, where they could freely communicate with God. Yet an interventionist God troubled by their scheme destroyed the tower, leading to the scattered, multi-lingual humanity of today. This ancient tale is not about enterprising humans thwarted by a jealous God, but is rather a critique of empire and oppression where God lovingly liberates humanity. After all, in the premodern world, the tower’s ambitious infrastructure was erected by slaves forced to speak their masters’ language. And what other use would the ancients have for such an edifice other than as a watchtower to keep order?

To retell this ancient tale, Skolimowski tells the overlapping stories of 22 unrelated Varsovians on an ordinary afternoon. The discrete stories take about 11 minutes each, and the film ends with all its characters suddenly converging. While certain arcs are better developed than others, each is fleeting and incomplete. More importantly, these are superficial and clichéd characters whose lives are full of exaggerated scenarios. This is by design; we are not supposed to be emotionally invested in them. Skolimowski, in fact, only gives two of them names, with the rest credited according to their social role, like “Doctor.” The setting of Warsaw is photographed as an anonymous twenty-first century metropolis, its famous landmarks appearing momentarily in sweeping pans, if at all. The lack of characterization—of both people and setting—is intended to make this a universal story.

11 Minutes shows us a broken humanity unable to communicate, prone to violence and obsessed with immediate physical pleasures. Characters utter elementary pop-mystical lines, revealing a sense of alienation. Many also obsess over an anomalous spot in the sky, one so ephemeral the camera fails to capture it. Everyone the camera follows through Warsaw is either hurriedly rushing somewhere or out of their minds on drugs and alcohol. They are also captured by surveillance cameras, with the film featuring multiple overt references to the omnipresent cameras watching as the cast hustles about. The message is clear: the modern city, like the mythical Babel of the ancients, is a land of closely-monitored slaves too intoxicated by quotidian demands to contemplate escaping the banal bondage that is their existence. So a liberating God steps in.

The climax is hyperbolically preposterous. Each of the people we have tracked through the city find themselves on the same block at precisely 5:11 in the afternoon, accidentally joined together. The viewer may accuse Skolimowski of falling prey to a contrived deus ex machina for his ending, but, of course, that is precisely the point. The Varsovians have troubled God with their schemes and depravity, so God, watching from the anomalous spot in the sky, intervenes to disrupt their lives.

The film is worthwhile as more than allegory. With its spectacular editing, 11 Minutes is an exemplar of the power of the cut to convey meaning. As the narrative bounces seemingly haphazardly between characters, sound cues and visual motifs orient the viewer and maintain the kinetic plot. The film presents itself as a puzzle for the viewer to solve. The sound design is particularly adept, with cleverly diegetic music and ambient city noises supporting the cutting until the climax. The widescreen photography, with its obsession with verticality and stairs, hints ably at the Tower metaphor as well. This adaptation of Babel is truly cinematic—sound, sight and narrative working in unison to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

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