November, 2006, Drama

Directed by:Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring:Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kōji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, and Nathan Gamble<br/ >Elle Fanning

Movie-making is the quintessential example of artistic collaboration; the range of technical & creative skills necessary to bring even a merely workmanlike project to the screen requires such an abundance of disparate skills it’s a wonder that any worthwhile films actually get made. Given the challenges involved, it’s no surprise that winning combinations of screenwriters, directors and actors tend to repeat themselves. Such is the case with writer Guillermo Arriaga, (The Three Burials of Melquides Estrada) director Alejandro Inarritu and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who have previously worked together on the stunning Amores Peros, (which won the critic’s award as best film of 2000) and the equally acclaimed but rather self-reverential 21 Grams three years later. In Babel, this multi-talented trio examines, with uneven result, the challenges of human communication in a world comprised of diverse languages, cultures and political conditions. Overly ambitious, visually stunning and often astonishingly poetic, Babel ultimately succumbs to the grandiose aims of its creators…but the film contains more than enough compelling material to warrant close - - perhaps repeated - - viewing. Here’s that rarity among current movies, something for an audience to really chew on.

Using the same inter-locking story technique employed in their two previous films, the creators of Babel begin with an accidental shooting in the isolated hills of rural Morocco, then link that incident to the lives of an extended Mexican family whose members are separated by the U. S. border and finally to a wealthy Japanese businessman and his mute teenage daughter in Tokyo. Although the timelines employed in these stories are often inverted, Babel’s script never allows the audience to suffer the near catastrophic incoherence its characters experience as they grope, across language barriers, unwritten social constraints and legal boundaries, with the implications of the random yet inter-related events that illustrate the film’s premise; we inhabit a world perilously close to permanent chaos because of our near universal inability and/or unwillingness to accurately and sufficiently communicate with each other. 

Kate Blanchett and Brad Pitt play Richard and Susan, long married yet disaffected Southern Californians touring Morocco with a bus-load of fellow Caucasians. When the shooting occurs, conflicts quickly arise among the tourists, the authorities called upon to find the perpetrators and the villagers whose impoverished community becomes an emergency aid station. As he struggles to make himself understood by the locals, Richard attempts to notify Amelia, nanny to the couple’s two young children, only to find that she’s taken them across the border with her to attend the wedding of her son. Unable to reach his children and rendered impotent by the slow response to the medical emergency the shooting has caused, Richard’s frustrations boil over into open conflict with other tour passengers, threatening to turn a bad situation into a desperate one. 

As the local police badger the families of those who tend flocks of goats in the hills surrounding the location where the shooting took place, the gun used in the attack is traced to a wealthy Japanese businessman whose mute daughter Mitsu is struggling with the recent suicide of her mother. As civil authorities in Morocco, Mexico, Japan and the U.S. struggle to unravel these interconnections, Richard, Amelia and Mitsu undergo transformations which teeter precariously between the profound and the banal, with resolutions that range from bitter disappointment to painful but hope-filled redemption from the isolation in which they live.

Like Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, (City of God, The Constant Gardener) Inarritu and his colleagues depict living conditions in the third world with a sense of passionate vitality; Babel’s detailed Mexican blue-collar wedding reception and the modest Moroccan home which is converted into a makeshift hospital shrewdly suggest that a paucity of material possessions can go hand in hand with a deeper appreciation for life than many audiences in more economically advanced countries would expect. The film suggests that wealth isolates, often in ways that are difficult for those who posses it to grasp; if Babel conveys anything at all, it’s the often pathetic ways in which humans fail to understand one another because they fail to understand themselves. 

But discovering this insight can carry a heavy and unfair price, especially when bureaucracies intersect with the efforts of people in different countries struggling to deal with each other. If Amelia’s sorrow, Richard’s epiphany and Mitsu’s agonized acceptance of her mother’s death have any ultimate meaning at all, Babel’s creators imply, it’s in realizing our mutual inability to manage our lives with the kind of obsessive individualism which permeates ordinary lives in the so-called “advanced” countries that make up the first world.

With equal skill and success, Prieto and production designer Brigitte Broch, (another alum of Amores Peros & 21 Grams) conjure up intense, impressionistic images of alienation amid the scorched foothills of Morocco, the claustrophobic teen haunts of high-tech Tokyo and the dusty barrios of Mexico. Arriaga’s screenplay glides seamlessly from the constipated mutterings of Richard to the anguished pleas of Amelia to the haltingly verbalized thoughts Mitsu is forced to scribble on a notepad. But Babel burdens the threads of its various storylines with a level of improbability meant to convey more import than they’re capable of carrying; rather than simply following the implications of the story’s basic premise, Babel places its protagonists in positions of such exaggerated distress that the film sacrifices realism for visceral impact, making the whole far less powerful than in might otherwise have been. There’s an often thin line between illuminating literary device and simple contrivance; unfortunately, Babel crisscrosses over it too frequently.

As Susan, Blanchett has little to do but suffer the effects of being shot, but in a scene in which she’s forced to rely on Richard in order to relieve herself with some semblance of dignity, the actress manages to convey volumes about the life she’s led and the person she’s become. Pitt’s performance is gritty but one-dimensional, making his growing self-awareness less satisfying or believable than it might otherwise have been. As Amelia, Mexican actress Adriana Barraza, (whose credits also include an appearance in Amores Peros) convincingly adds a couple of decades to her actual age to deliver an agonizingly beautiful portrait as the absentee matriarch of an extended family and surrogate mother to Richard and Susan’s children. A warm but easily manipulated working class woman, she succumbs to the manipulations of others with a beleaguered dignity made all the more tragic because of the circumstances into which she allows herself and the children to be placed. Newcomer Yuko Murata astounds with her portrayal of Mitsu, a belligerent youngster embittered by the callous reactions of her peers to her disability, terrified by her mother’s violent death and frantic in her efforts to connect with someone who can help her understand the emotions she’s experiencing as she enters young adulthood.

With dozens of supporting characters, an assortment of telling incidents in the film’s many locations and a running time just under 2 ½ hours, Babel visually reflects the grand ambitions its creators obviously possess. That it ultimately fails to deliver the cumulative impact of its numerous ingredients doesn’t lessen the impact of its best parts; there is wondrous magic here, profound observations interspersed with melodramatic elements that don’t do justice to Babel’s aspirations…but the overall result  compels in ways most current serious movies only aspire to. 

The verdict? If you want an experience that offers ample food for thought while providing an opportunity for passionate discussion, see Babel; it’s well nigh impossible not to communicate after seeing it.  


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