Borat: Subtle As An Atomic Bomb

As bombastic as its name suggests, Borat explodes in your face, leaving a desert of meaning. One scene in particular describes the anthropological quest embodied by this film.

The ‘Kazakh’ reporter (Sacha Baron Cohen) visits an antiques shop and ends up breaking some of its most precious pieces. The value of the fine china is limited, and is merely a façade for something more important, namely the intrinsic value of symbols that preserve the accumulated wealth of tradition, convention, manners, and customs.

These cultural artifacts reveal the delicate social fabric within which their previous owners existed. As in the antiques shop, Sacha Baron Cohen enthusiastically destroys the certainties and mores which people have lived with for ages.

Regardless of its artistic merit, Borat is an invaluable social experiment; an ethnographic expedition that tests the social fabric in the USA to the limit. In the same vein as the Italian actor-director Nanni Moretti, Sacha Baron Cohen does a kind of Caro Diario, using sexual obsession as the motivating factor behind his quest. The pursuit in the case of Moretti is the actress Jennifer Beals; in Borat it is Pamela Anderson.

But whereas Moretti embarks in a road trip through Italy in search of the essence of his country and by assumption, himself, Borat’s path leads nowhere. Even though it is presented as a road trip, the film seems more like an obstacle course in which every scene raises the bar to higher insults. In a series of vignettes, Borat transgresses,the limits of social convention one by one.

He first starts breaking simple rules of etiquette, then goes on to the scatological, and then the sexual, until his quest escalates and reaches the ultimate repositories of certainties and righteousness: feminism, patriotism and religiosity of America’s citizens.

The problem with the film, however, is that once there are no more sensibilities to insult, the trip is over.
The film does, however, have some instances where the character really connects with his innocent interlocutors. Understandably, the real connection that is achieved in precious moments of the film is possible only with those characters that are not themselves a part of society’s mainstream. These characters live by their own rules and preserve a spontaneity that clicks with the candid Borat; the African-American teenagers that he meets in the street; the prostitute. Being on the margins of society themselves, they can comfortably co-exist with this man because they too improvise their rituals. They don’t live by those imposed by society; they create their own rules and mores and play with them, as Borat does with his role.

Borat seems like a joke that goes on for too long, perhaps a victim of its own excesses. It is a compliment to the talent of Sacha Baron Cohen that after awhile we do not seem shocked anymore by his antics, so comfortable we become with his characterization . The sloppiness of the film goes beyond its style, leaving a vacuum of meaning, wasting the opportunity to adhere to any conviction behind this social experiment.

As wonderful as it is, Borat misses the opportunity to reach out at the deeper implications that an iconoclastic exercise such as this, could have had.

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