Director : Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay : Guillermo Arriaga (from an idea by Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Brad Pitt (Richard), Cate Blanchett (Susan), Gael García Bernal (Santiago), Koji Yakusho (Yasujiro), Adriana Barraza (Amelia), Rinko Kikuchi (Chieko), Said Tarchani (Ahmed), Boubker Ait El Caid (Yussef), Mustapha Rachidi (Abdullah), Elle Fanning (Debbie), Nathan Gamble (Mike), Mohamed Akhzam (Anwar)
Babel is the third and most ambitious collaboration between screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu. It shares with their previous films, Amores perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003), multiple jagged narratives in which a single incident sets disparate people’s lives onto a fatalistic collision course. In Babel, the trigger incident--the passing of a rifle from one person to another--is never seen actually taking place, which makes it seem all the more arbitrary.
This, I suppose, might be part of what Arriaga and Iñárritu are trying to say, as fatalism tends to hang heavy over their works. Yet, the title of the film, Babel, and the fact that it takes place in three different parts of the world and features half a dozen different languages (including English, Spanish, Japanese, Japanese Sign Language, French, Berber, and Arabic) begs that it be viewed in reference to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Found in Genesis Chapter 11, it tells the story of how God punished the overly ambitious peoples of the world for trying to build a tower that would reach heaven by spreading them across the globe and “confus[ing] their language so they [would] not understand each other.”
Language plays a key role in Babel, as does confusion and misunderstanding, both willful and accidental. Yet, beyond the idea that different people have trouble understanding each other, there is little thematic coherence in the film, even though you have the gnawing sense that Arriaga and Iñárritu are going after something much deeper. The film is replete with individually powerful scenes, yet it never quite adds up to what you’re expecting. It’s not that the filmmakers supply either pat answers or no answers at all; rather, they somehow manage to do both and neither. Babel feels like it’s skimming the surface of a great topic (in a visually arresting way, not that we would expect anything less of a born filmmaker like Iñárritu). Yet, it never comes together in the emotionally and thematically powerful way that is clearly intended.
The story begins in the deserts of Morocco, where Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi), the young sons of a goat herder named Ahmed (Said Tarchani), are watching over the flock at the top of a ridge. They have recently acquired a .270 caliber rifle that they are supposed to use to shoot jackals preying on the goats, but instead they shoot at rocks and, in an attempt to test how far one of the bullets will go, they shoot absent-mindedly at a tour bus climbing the road beneath them.
The bullet goes far enough to hit Susan (Cate Blanchett), a Californian on vacation with her husband, Richard (Brad Pitt, given another decade of age via wrinkles and gray hair), which threatens to create an international incident (the U.S. government immediately wants to blame it on terrorists). With nowhere to go, Richard takes his profusely bleeding wife to the small village of one of the tour guides, where his resilience is tested by everything from the other tourists who want to leave him there to protect themselves, to international snafus that keep the ambulance from arriving, to his own Americanized assumption that there should be a modern hospital around every corner. Pitt has a tough role here, in that he is supposed to stand in for the typical “ugly American” while still making us sympathize with his plight; it is testament to his often underrated abilities that he manages to do both when needed.
Meanwhile, Richard and Susan’s two young children, Debbie (Elle “Little Sister of Dakota” Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), are being cared for by their live-in nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza). Along with her headstrong nephew, Santiago (Gael García Bernal), Amelia takes the children into Mexico for the day to attend her son’s wedding near Tijuana. All is well until they try to cross back into the U.S. late that night, as an overly suspicious border guard sets off a potentially deadly chain of events.
And, on the completely opposite side of the world, a deaf-mute Japanese teenager named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) attempts to negotiate both her budding sexuality and her bitterness at having recently lost her mother with sexual exhibitionism and increasingly aggressive provocation. Chieko’s father (Koji Yakusho) doesn’t quite understand his daughter’s sadness and anger (is there a line between the two?) and is therefore shut out from her just as she is shut out from hearing the world around her.
There would seem to be little connecting these four stories, yet Iñárritu finds consistently engaging visual means of threading them together. He often uses television--that great, modern conqueror of time and space--to makes huge leaps across the globe, as Chieko catches brief bits of news reports regarding the shooting of Susan. He also uses landscapes and culture to make connections via disconnect, for example, the barren, undeveloped wilderness around Morocco contrasted with the hyper-modernized technopolis of Tokyo. The primary link, though, is the sense of fatalism that locks its grip around all of the characters, none of whom seem to be in control of their lives. They make decisions, but genuine choice feels like a fleeting illusion. And, when characters do seem to be in control of their destiny, their choices always result in catastrophe (such as the kids deciding to shoot at the bus or Santiago’s panicked choice at the border), which only intensifies the sense of fatalism.
Iñárritu is clearly interested in culture as lived experience, and at various points he lets the narrative come to a near stand-still so he can fully envelop us in the world of his characters, most notably at the Mexican wedding and in a Tokyo discotechque, which he boldly depicts from Chieko’s soundless point of view. He also contrasts cultural practices, such as when Debbie and Mike are shocked to discover that a fun game they’re playing before the wedding involving catching chickens ends with the gruesome sight of Santiago wringing the chicken’s neck and popping its head off (the Mexican children, used to such sights, laugh with delight as they run after the flopping carcass while Mike stands in petrified silence).
Arriaga’s screenplay willfully keeps the chronology of events vague throughout the film, so that it is only near the end that we begin to see what happened when. While clever, this serves little purpose because it doesn’t bring the film’s themes into any clearer focus. If anything, the anti-linear chronology feels like a gimmick needed to disguise the essentially straightforward nature of the storylines. There is no big revelation or sudden moment of clarity; rather, the characters stumble through their confusion, getting to the end of their individual narratives having experienced possibly the worst turmoil of their lives. Whether it makes them better people is debatable, although it is clear that some of their lives have been inordinately ruined (not everyone survives, and those who are left alive are sure to bear deep scars). Had this international cornucopia of heated melodrama made a stronger point by the times the credit rolled, Babel might have been a deeply moving film. As it stands, it is a collection of often powerful scenes in search of something grand to say.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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