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Babel - Movie Review

Spoiler Warning: The fourth paragraph sketchily discusses the storyline.

Expectations were high for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's '21 Grams' because of his breakthrough debut 'Amorres Perros'. '21 Grams' matched his first effort in a few aspects and exceeded in a few other aspects. Though I found the broken structure of '21 Grams' a little distracting than challenging, that's just a small quibble considering the immense experience it offered. With these two movies, Inarritu's third offering 'Babel' was received with a Himalayan hype.. and.. and... it's no hyperbole to say that 'Babel' truly lives up to it's expectations. If you like serious movies that looks at life unflinchingly without preaching or sermonizing, look no further than Inarritu. He completes his interconnectedness trilogy in great style and cements his position as one of the most reputed directors working today. If you want to read no further, consider the rest of the review as a wonderful advertisement and a strong recommendation for the best movie I've seen this year.

Chaos theory proposes something like the flap of a butterfly's wing in Madagascar can set off a chain of events that could result in a hurricane in Florida. 'Babel' magnificently captures the emotional/life equivalent of this theory with grace, grittiness, style and substance. As with Inarritu's previous efforts, he touches multiple themes, portrays how many personalities are confronted and sometimes rudely shaken by what a stranger did in a different part of the world. But he doesn't treat any of the motifs as peripheral issues in spite of the limited screen time. There is a scene at the beginning of the film where a girl begins to strip herself because she knows a boy is peeping through. There are no frank dialogues exchanged between them as they live in a society which follows rigid codes imposed on boy-girl interactions. And that scene makes a strong statement about the universal curiousness that prevails among cupid struck teenagers to stretch the limits of their culture to accommodate their infatuated entity. A lesser director would have capitalized on the nudity element, and a better director would have cut the scene for it doesn't aid the primary themes. But Inarritu wonderfully sets the tone of the boy's character and proceeds with his story through that scene.

This movie is global in the sense that it spans different continents, cultures, languages - but discusses unifying themes like love, desire, pain and guilt. There are four sub-plots 'Babel' deals with: [1] An American couple touring Morocco - emotionally distant, too tired to argue and egoistic to talk openly about matters ailing their relationship. [2] A good-natured, responsible and lovable Mexican illegal immigrant working in America as a housekeeper cum babysitter. [3] A peasant family in a village in Morocco - a strict father, his two shepherd sons and their mindless guts. [4] A deaf-mute Japanese girl who feels lonely and outcast because of her inability to lose her virginity. All the stories are interconnected and every story, (which seems complete even without the connections) is exploited by the screenplay by putting the characters into delicate positions, tight corners and agonizing moments to analyze universal themes in a mature manner. Guillermo Arriago, who has collaborated with the director in his previous efforts produces another gem of a tangled script which feeds the director's hunger for challenge.

Susan and Richard, affluent Americans, failing in their marriage, are touring a lesser known destination in the Moroccan deserts. Teenage shepherds in a village in Morocco get a rifle to guard their herd from the jackals. When they get curious to see if a cartridge can travel three kilometres as promised by the seller, one of the boys shoots at a tourist bus from a mountain top, which pierces Susan's neck. In the middle of nowhere, Richard tries like hell to get an ambulance to get Susan to the nearest hospital as soon as possible. Since this accident puts a hold on their return schedule, Richard asks his housekeeper Amelia in San Diego to hang on for a while, who has plans of attending her son's wedding on the other side of the border. Since Amelia can't find anyone to look after the children, she takes them with the help of her immature nephew Santiago to Mexico without proper papers. When they try to re-enter the States, a drunk Santiago pulls off a stunt that results in an accident, not physical, but tremendously mental which forms some of the best agonizing scenes in the movie. When all of this transpires, Chieko, a deaf-mute girl in Japan tries to cope with her loveless life - a recently dead mother, emotionally distant father, without any boyfriends, she tries to lure men into her life by revealing herself inappropriately.

The performances are uniformly superlative. It is extremely refreshing to see Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett shed their superstar images and play mid-age couple. In one of the scenes where Pitt and Blanchett travel in a bus, because of their physical proximity, she hovers her fingers over his hands, but he doesn't respond to her call for emotional support and remains cold. A few minutes later, she is shot and he carries her through the narrows passages and up the stairs of a remote town. When immobility renders her pants wet, he cleans her. In a heart rending move, he kisses her in an assuring way which implies that he'll be with her come what may. Now, how many A list Hollywood actors are ready to play this scene is a valid question. But, how many of them can act such intimate scenes with this level of naturalism is a big question. Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko plays a very daring and demanding role because her part requires complete nudity and at the same time portraying complex emotions pertaining to lovelessness. Adriana Barraza plays Amelia with great strength which seems further enhanced by the screenplay for her part which tests her ability to act both composed on the outside and helpless inside in front of the kids. The Moroccan crew comprises of new names, but there is not a false step in their scenes.

Not only are the main themes captivating, but the minor characters too make strong points. For example, an American co-passenger/tourist travelling in the bus feels threatened at the spate of villagers looking at him. When Richard (Brad Pitt) requests the bus stay until an ambulance arrives, first he hesitates and later he cajoles, coaxes and orders the remaining tourists to get the bus off the village. He doesn't have much screen time, but he symbolizes the typical first world fear that the third world citizens are going to eat him up if he's struck in their place. The American government soon adds terrorism overtones to this accidental shooting. But, a young Muslim guide stays with Richard all the while, helps with getting Susan airlifted to a speciality hospital in a city (which reaches the hospital around night time) and refuses to accept cash for his support. The turmoil Chieko feels is difficult to capture in words and I wonder what Arriago would have written if she hadn't been mute. The screenplay and her facial expressions capture her slow descent into a vortex of a hardened world.

Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto adds value to this movie. Some shots, without word, without anything animate are just simply brilliant in conveying what the writer or director couldn't say. A search scene in a Mexican desert leaves your mouth dry - great composition of shots that leave you baffled just as the searcher is baffled. Edited by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, there is not an abrupt cut or closure or opening. It's difficult to put film rolls together, especially when it involves multiple stories. The narration is so seamless that these guys definitely make the producer less worrisome. Guillermo Arriago has written all the three of the movies directed by Inarritu. Almost all the scenes just blend homogeneously and it's quite difficult to distinguish how much of the success of that one scene or plot or even the movie as a whole was contributed by the writer and the director. Every scene is wonderfully written and breathtakingly composed. The series of scenes that make up a sub-plot represents forceful story-telling and magnificent character development. But the movie as a whole, is very much greater than the sum of it's parts.

Destiny, fate, free will, casual mistakes that result in tragic consequences, love and the pain of losing a secure life - these are some of the themes Inarritu has repeatedly revolved around in his first three movies. An act of good will in one corner of the world has the potential to leave two children orphaned in another corner of the world. Though there is a certain poetic justice in the way the movie ends, it's not all sweet. For example, Chieko gets her hug, but from someone who doesn't have any sexual interests in her. All the stories have a clear ending, but there is also a new beginning in the way they come to an end. 'Babel' provides food for thought and stays with you after the credits roll. This movie makes a clarion call for strong consideration for the upcoming Oscars in the top categories. We are used to seeing the members of the Academy bungle up with their votes. Irrespective of the awards it may garner or lose, this movie will be remembered for a long time, which is the hallmark of any great movie.

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33 Responses to “Babel - Movie Review”

  1. # Blogger Reel Fanatic

    It is indeed, and for me "Babel" was the best movie I saw in all of 2006 .. all the stories were great, but that one with the deaf-mute Japanese teenager played so well by Rinko Kikuchi just hit me really hard  

  2. # Anonymous Anonymous

    You need to have a spoiler alert for this review...  

  3. # Blogger Prasad Venkataramana

    Reel Fanatic,
    Chieko's story is the first among the equals. It's good to see a mainstream release starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett feature such emotionally complex and deep-delving stories.

    Anon,
    I've added a spoiler warning. Thanks.  

  4. # Blogger Venkat

    Prasad,

    Insightful,

    but

    Felt the reviews in general could be more concise. IMO :You're packing too much of info. in just one entry..,  

  5. # Blogger Prasad Venkataramana

    Venkat,
    Thanks. I sometimes get excited and try to get all my thoughts about the movie into the post. My wife too agrees with you. May be, as I evolve, I'll discern what to cut out of the review.  

  6. # Anonymous Anonymous

    If there is anything this movie does to you, it wonderfully reaffirms that we are, after all the divides us, one and the same. The tragedy, the pain, our sense of justice, the promise of life, the disappointment... no matter who we are, what we do, where we live, what language we speak, what we do with our lives.... we feel the same way. Words do not come easy for a movie like this.... Just a great movie....  

  7. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Thank you Prasad, for writing the best review about this extraordinary film. For me, it was the arrogance of first world vs dignity of humiliated third world,which was very beautifully displayed in the film, made it very brave and very good.
    The details were incredibly good, stories were very moving (made me sob)and the title made me think about the times we live in. The story of Babel, remember?
    A great film, shame on the snob reviewers (such as Time Out,UK) who snubbed this film, may be because they did not like what it said. And I loved it mainly because of what it said.  

  8. # Anonymous Anonymous

    This movie was mildly interesting but it was painful to watch the horrible things that kept mounting on top of each other and in the end I didn't find really find anything of meaning to connect the stories. I just kept thinking, why are these people doing these idiotic things? I know as the ugly American I should be more understanding but I just kept thinking: why would you take those kids to Mexico? Why would you go to Morocco and leave your children behind? Why would an American tourist being shot require so much attention yet the obviously destitute Moroccan citizens are abused by the own government. I did like the Cheiko story but in the end it left us just sort of hanging.  

  9. # Blogger Prasad Venkataramana

    Thanks - all the anonymous commentors.

    This movie was mildly interesting but it was painful to watch the horrible things that kept mounting on top of each other and in the end I didn't find really find anything of meaning to connect the stories. I just kept thinking, why are these people doing these idiotic things?
    I think that may be painful subjects isn't your cup of tea. You ask why people do these idiotic things. A cynical answer would be: because that's what makes us human beings. By the way, that answer isn't far off from a plauisble/practical one when people are emotionally lost and put into tight corners.  

  10. # Blogger Dana Banks

    Those who travel globally and study the ongoing collisions of high tech civilizations into ancient cultures understand this forceful and compelling expression of the current state of humanity.  

  11. # Anonymous Anonymous

    I agree that this was an inspirational film with great acting but I still am upset and confused about a couple of things that transpired. Throughout the movie you get to know the character Santiago pretty well. You realize that he lives a little on the edge and likes to party, but is still a descent human being. All of the sudden he turns into a maniac with no regard for any human life but his own. Diserting an old woman who he cares about and two young children in the middle of the desert? This was too far from left field for me. Also when Santiago drives them into the desert he makes one left turn and drives for about 15 seconds off of the main road. How hard could it be to find the one main road you were just on? Just re-trace your steps! I just felt this part of the film happened too fast and wasn't thought out properly. Finally, what was the deal at the end with Cheiko? Why did she tell the detective that her mother jumped instead of what really happened? What did she write to the officer on the last folded up piece of paper? I'm sure I just missed what was going on here and need to watch it again. All in all great movie, no CRASH, but great movie with a few confusing parts.  

  12. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Very good review. You are able to delve into some depth and express your understanding well.

    I too did not quite get the ending with the Japanese girl, but perhaps those details aren't as important as the overall message they may have been trying to convey.

    Humanity needs love - in its various forms. Sexual intimacy and being desired (from female perspective) being just one of them. This need for love, sex, being cared for are basic instincts in all of us that come alive in our adulescense (sex) and other forms of love much earlier.

    The other main message, and perhaps even greater message in this movie is how important it is to show kindness to everyone - including strangers, because like the butterfly affect, it can have far reaching (positive) affects. For the most part, the movie shows the outcome of what may happen when we do not express kindness for others and the negative and unimaginable consequences that may come as a result.

    What many first world cultures have in terms of materialism, they often lack in deep emotional bonding and expression of kindness thus forming societies whose people are on the edge of emotional and psychological breakdown but cover it up with superficial smiles. The ignorance of the people in third world countries leaves them destitute with no way out of their struggles in poverty and its associated problems and suffering.

    In the end, all humans suffer - nobody gets to go through life without suffering, and we all have our sob stories - some obviously more critical than others...

    ... but the deeper the problem, when overcome, the greater human beings we can become. Without suffering, we would be too comfortable and emotionally numb - never to develop beyond our current state. Without darkness, one could not appreciate light. It is the way the world turns; therefore, there is no sense in trying to reverse the spin of your fate - but rather embrace it and move forward always being truthful with yourself, about your motives, about your desires, deeply questioning who you are.

    If introspection is a part of our daily lives, then little (negative) surprise can take place, for we already know what types problems may occur and we will be ready to meet them.

    When we only look externally with our eyes, and not internally at ourselves with our hearts and mind, we will fold like leaves in the winds of change - always susceptable to suffer from what may come.

    Adeptus  

  13. # Anonymous Anonymous

    I left out my conclusion...

    It would be more accurate to say that ALL humans feel pain at one point or another - whether physical or emotional-psychological... even the premature baby feels pain when its organs stop functioning and it dies.

    But there is a very signficant different between pain and suffering. Pain, all must go through for we all have physical bodies and eventually they either get hurt, sick or die... suffering however, only occurs in the mind.

    One may then conclude that the only way to not suffer is to exist in a mind that is ever at peace with itself and the world - ever in a blissful state.


    These days though, extremely few are the humans exist in such condition - yet many of us have the potential to reach this state... Perhaps we just need to suffer a little more before we get tired enough of suffering and look for a way out, for a different type of existence... a more human existance.

    Adeptus  

  14. # Anonymous Anonymous

    I thought Babel was inane and depressing and what good does it do for anyone to watch it? That we are all connected is a good message, but what a lousy way to convey such a concept. It was a downer, and the people were so stupid. It just had such a disturbed mood. Just possibly the worst movie I have ever seen.  

  15. # Anonymous Anonymous

    I hated this movie. Waste of my time!  

  16. # Anonymous Anonymous

    I just got done watching this movie. It was amazing. I came online to try to find the significance of the ending (with the Japanese girl) but I haven't found it yet. Usually I try to let movies "sink in" before I go see what other people have to say, but I am much too curious about the ending. I really wish I knew what the director wanted us to get from it.
    It seems like the ending may have touched on emotions and bonds and how they transcend material things (like clothes, haha).. Her father came home at the end and she was completely stripped, physically and mentally. There was no awkwardness about it, though, things just played out naturally. She held his hand, but that wasn't enough so they hugged.

    I don't understand the part about her mother and why she lied about her jumping off and what the note said.

    I guess I'll let it sink in some more.  

  17. # Anonymous Anonymous

    There is no question that this movie is fairly depressing. The ending leaves you very sad, and this must have a message. The question is what is the meaning behind the two children’s disappearance/death in the desert (not clear what happens to them) at the end of the movie. My interpretation of the very strong message that this movie is conveying is that even if you are mortally wounded in a very far and isolated place, if you happen to be an American (in this case a white male), you can bring to bear all of resources of the American government to save your life (in this case the life of his wife). However, if you are a Mexican illegal alien, even if your are in U.S. soil, no one is even going to listen or believe to you in a desperate situation where the life of other people (in this case two young American citizens) are in mortal danger. I really believe that this is at least one messages that the director and writer were trying to convey with this very thoughtful movie. Thus, the movie is basically making a point about racism and the very different value that the American government places in the life of an American versus a non-American person. The whole plot of the movie is to set-up in a more or less credible way the situation to send this powerful and what I believe to be a true message about the attitude of our government towards other people in the world.  

  18. # Anonymous Anonymous

    1. Why would the Mexican lady take the two American kids to Mexico?: I think it's both b/c of love and selfishness - she wants to attend the wed, she can't leave the kids to someone else, and what's also important is that.. with the kids, she will be able to get back to America more easily (I think so)

    2. Why would the Morroco gov. not care about their citizens but so patient with the Americans?: well, I'm from a third world country, it's hard to explain but it would be the same way if this happened in my country. This is not fair. But if the Morroco cops don't solve the problem quickly (even if it's not the way they should solve it, like in the movie: shooting the 2 boys), things would get worse in the news, the gov would be condemned world wide.

    There are things that you are sure YOU will never do that way, but who knows whether the other people will? The world is so diverse, and the culture influences people deeply. When I tried to figure out why things happened like that in the movie, I tried to connect the characters with their cultures and the general characteristics of human beings: loving, caring, selfish, foolish, greedy,...

    The movie is certainly not perfect. But its message is so true. It's hard for people who haven't experienced the life of a third world country or of asian countries to figure out "how things could be that way!"  

  19. # Blogger Jorge

    I hve my own theory on why Chieko lied to the officer about how her mother died. Chieko obviously feels like a social outcast. She feels as if she is cursed because of her being deaf/mute. We see that she constantly is seeking an emotional and sexual connection with young men of her age but is not accepted as she is. When she does find some connection with the young party kids she spends a day with she realises that it is not completly real (drugs/partying).
    The reason why she calls the detective and tells him her mother jumped off the balcony I believe is that she is wishing to be seen as a victim. The reason why I say this is because the fact that she is physically attractive is not enough for her and she feels that she must have someone feel pity for her as an easier way for her to seduce them. It's almost as if she is searching for a false "night in shining armour". The fact that the officer was a mature person and realised she had a problem and accepted her somewhat brought her back down to earth. I believe the note had something to do with revealing the truth about her mother which is why she insisted that he wait to read it (therefore not ruining the calm delicate moment attained after the officer's compasion soothed her). As far as her hugging her father I think she just realised the at the end that the real person that cared about her the whole time was not a raver kid, horny school boys, or an older detective (all falsehoods). The real man that cared about her the whole time which she overlooked was her father. Long explanation but that's my take on it. BTW, This was a great movie, I'm glad many of you liked it, and to those who did not like it it is understandable that the film is not the most charming and enchanting movie and that it is sad and depressing, but these characters portray only a fraction of the lives we don't see every day and that life isn't all the fun and games that many of us North Americans have the luxury of experience. Yet people DO go through similar experiences everyday wether or not we want to believe it. Instead of critisizing this movie for not being hollywood glamour I suggest to try to understand if you can what goes on in the world and apreciate what you have, and learn to feel compassion for those who aren't as fortunate. I find those that can learn to do this, myself included, are able to live a life far more rich in apreaciation and beauty that what only our eyes can merely show us at face value. Thanks for the read!  

  20. # Anonymous Anonymous

    can somebody tell me what happened to the two american children please? its driving me mad!!!  

  21. # Blogger Prasad Venkataramana

    I think the kids were picked up the border patrol and reunited with their parents. Had the director had anything else on his mind for the kids, he wouldn't have left it a loose knot. So, I guess you can sleep tight tonight.  

  22. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Helen Payne said:
    Reading the comments and questions from other people confirms my feeling that this movie is an exceptional one that really makes all of us think. I like the fact that we don't know what was in the note from the Japanese teenager. That adds to the interest. As a person who has travelled a lot in third world countries, I found the attitudes very credible. An excellent movie!  

  23. # Anonymous Anonymous

    This movie projects that White Americans believe they can go anywhere in the world and everything can be okay in the end. Even after being shot and taken to a small village in the middle of nowhere, and left by their peers.

    Everyone but the whites have a tragic ending. They " have a happy ending" while everyone else suffers humailation and/or death as aresult of human error or ignorance . How "white American".

    According to this movie whites can hire illegal aliens to care for their children. Too bad for the mexican caregiver since she was expected to take of their
    children no matter what only to be replaced. I take care of you and you take care of me, sure don,t apply here.  

  24. # Anonymous Anonymous

    why was the mexican woman forced to take two kids she works for to her son wedding?
    Because the selfish parents who hired her expected her to do as she is told. What mother would miss her son's wedding?
    Why could'nt these white people find someone else to watch their kids? I am sure they have family? !!!

    People lives get messed up because of those who don't value OR respect others for who they are because they think they are better.

    Bad movie overall, but the acting was good.  

  25. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Chieko came into this world naked and loveless and wanted to leave the world in the same way......  

  26. # Anonymous Anonymous

    The real love that Chieko was looking for was the love of the Father. This is the love that we are all looking for. In the end she was held in tenderness by her earthly father, naked and unashamed. This is the way we come into the world and what we long for in the next. Babel has deep Biblical significance, obvious first in its title. It was God who confused our languages so that we would seek him and not each other for that ultimate love we were created to need. Excellant movie, excellant parable. Thank you mrs. Inarritu and Arriago.  

  27. # Anonymous Anonymous

    "It was a downer, and the people were so stupid. It just had such a disturbed mood." IGNORANT

    People who didn't like the movie because they found it "ridiculous" are simply ignorant. I live in a third world country, a Latin one. The fact that the Mexican lady took her beloved American kids to the other side of the frontier is a representation of her culture. The intense significance of family events gathered up with the under-educated influence didn't make this a "stupid" decision, but rather an impulsive one. You can witness similar decisions all through my country. It is not far-off from reality.

    This is, in fact, the whole point of the movie. I'm guessing those who hold bad opinions and remarks of stupidity about the movie are American Whites, or perhaps high class first world-country habitants. The situations aren't stupid! The Morocco and Mexican situations are simply a representation of the dis functioning of different cultures, along with their mentalities. If you don't understand them, its because of the babel principle of being strangers to other people's perspective.

    In conclusion, don't call the situations stupid. They are not.

    I am extremely intrigued with the Japanese-nudity ending. I am even more intrigued with the two conversations between the Mexican Lady and the Pitt character. It Pitt had, in fact, found someone to take care of the children, none of the other events would have happened. Having thought really hard about it, I concluded that it may be a simple representation of the "butterfly effect". But I would like to dig deeper into the topic. Does someone else hold the same doubts?  

  28. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Can anyone explain why Amelia was at home with the kids when Richard arrived at the American hospital after his time spent in Morroco? In the beginning of the film we see Amelia talking to Richard explaining that they may need to operate on Susan, and then Richard's son talks to him about what he did at school that day. What seems to be the following day, Amelia receives a phone call from Richard saying they won't be able to make it home and that she must look after the kids, which she then explains she cannot do because of her son's wedding? Then at the end of the film when Richard finally arrives on American soil, he phones Amelia and has the conversation about the operation and what his son did at school that day. This doesn't make sense to me because I thought Amelia had been deported already, and was back in Mexico with her son. Unless this was another incident that occured a while aftet the shooting in Morocco, this doesn't make any sense. Please explain!!  

  29. # Anonymous Maria

    Prasad, I just watched this movie again (4th time?) and came to the Internet to try and find some other opinions on the ending. I read your review and wanted to comment on the bus scene where you describe that Brad Pitt's character does not respond to his wife's touch. That is not at all how I interpreted that scene ... in fact, I sensed just the opposite. To me, only in her semi conscious state does she let her guard down to reach out ... he is very conscious of the touch (but also aware that she is not fully awake), responds with his own caress ... and is equally aware when she pulls back and closes herself off again.

    I love this movie.  

  30. # Blogger Prasad Venkataramana

    Anon,
    The director plays with the timeline. There's no scene showing Brad Pitt in a American hospital as far as I can remember.

    Maria,
    That's an interesting observation which reveals how complex the relationship is between a tired husband/wife. Thanks.  

  31. # Anonymous Anonymous

    I still don't understand why Richard didn't give Amelia the day off so she could attend her son's wedding. His wife's sister was suppose to fly in to take care of the children, and he confirmed that she would when his wife was already in the hospital. SOMEONE EXPLAIN IT TO ME!!!  

  32. # Anonymous Anonymous

    obviously he couldn't find anyone to take the kids, because I'm sure if he had someone else to take care of the kids, he would have given his nanny a day off. maybe the thing with his wife's sister fell through. I really don't think it matters though. I'm sure his nanny was pretty low on his priority list at the moment, and this is understandable, considering that he was in Morocco with a critically injured wife.

    great movie- yeah, it's sad, but it really makes you think, which is pretty uncommon for movies nowadays.  

  33. # Blogger Unknown

    I am a bit confused between the two phone calls that Richard makes at the beginning of the movie vs the end. @ the beginning he asks her to watch the children, but at the end - he still speaks to Amelia. I thought she was deported ??? How is he able to speak with her. Can someone please explain this time lapse?

    Also - second question. If Amelia crossed into Mexico after living in the United States for 16 years, there would be zero chance of her crossing. She would have been pulled out of the car immediately after showing her passport.  

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