Natal Attraction

Babies follows four newborns through their first year

"A soiled baby, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty," Mark Twain once said. Cherished as they are, babies are not always lovable or even interesting — they are notoriously poor conversationalists, they don't smoke, and they seldom give useful stock tips.

Nonetheless, French producer Alain Chabat thought it would be a grand idea to make a documentary capturing the first year of life of four babies in different parts of the world, with music, no commentary, and minimal dialogue — a sort of wildlife movie about human infancy. He enlisted Thomas Balmès to direct the film that, like its subjects, is by turns endearing, surprising, and maddening. Its most interesting element — the ethnographic comparisons of child-raising practices in Africa, Japan, Mongolia, and the U.S. — is only glancingly explored, leaving the audience as hungry as an underfed baby.

Digitally shot over two years, the movie follows four families, from mother's late pregnancy through baby's first year. We are introduced to Ponijaio of Namibia, Bayar of Mongolia, Mari of Tokyo, and Hattie of San Francisco. The babies do the things universal to child development — nursing, crawling, laughing, harassing surprisingly tolerant pets — but in vastly different settings. The Mongolian baby watches with mild interest as a rooster hops onto its bed; the American child bobs with her mother in a hot tub.

The attractive cinematography caresses the plains of Namibia, where Ponijaio's mother and sister, members of the Himba tribe in loincloths and elaborately braided hair, mind the children with laissez-faire tolerance while the men are away raising cattle. The movie captures tribal rituals, like the shaving of the baby's head with a sharp knife and washing him with a mixture of red-earth pigment and oil, without providing explanation. At times, you long for the BBC-style announcer to intone, "To clean the dust out of the baby's eyes, the Himba mother uses her own saliva."

Although Chabot claims the film makes no judgments about the families, there are certain editorial implications. After the very natural childbirths of Asian and African babies, the American baby is introduced in a hospital setting, where Hattie is being monitored for a breathing problem. Her parents are almost comically "New Age," devotees of parenting books and Native-American chant circles.

The film's basic idea is lovely, but unembellished baby footage is not reliably theatrical. Even over its short 79-minute running time, the movie becomes almost as wearisome as your neighbor's home videos. Audiences not besotted with the baby-ness of it all may identify with Mari, who grows bored with her toys and pitches a solitary fit, lying on her back and kicking her chubby little legs in frustration.

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