Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR:" Rutkowski
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Guillermo Arriaga, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal
for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use
"The beauty of this film is in
its lapidary details, which sparkle with feeling and surprise."
If a butterfly flaps its wings in the rain forest, it will,
if nothing else, set off an infinite chain reaction in the minds of Alejandro
González Iñárritu and his creative collaborator, Guillermo Arriaga. The director
and screenwriter have a thing for causal connections, which, in "Babel," they
literally track to the ends of the Earth.
As in "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," their two previous
collaborations, "Babel," which won the best director award at Cannes, ties
together four seemingly unconnected stories that are eventually revealed to be
inextricably linked to one another. The first story begins in the Moroccan
desert, where a farmer named Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) buys a rifle to protect
his goats from jackals, and hands it over to his two young sons, Yussef (Boubker
Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani), who, fooling around, take a careless
potshot at a passing bus.
The second takes place in San Diego and later in a small
Mexican border town, where Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican nanny, takes her
young charges Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning) to attend her son's
wedding when their traveling parents refuse to let the woman take the day off.
What at first seems like heartless authoritarianism on the part of her employer
turns out to be the result of a tragedy. Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate
Blanchett) are traveling in Morocco when their bus is attacked in what appears
to be a terrorist incident.
As its title implies, "Babel" is about the difficulty of
human communication, but although the stories unfold in four countries and in
five languages — English, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese and sign — language is far
from the principal barrier. Instead, the film explores the ways in which
cultural assumptions and biases tend to obscure reality even when reality is
plain, and the way our perceived differences keep us from finding a human
connection to one other.
If the relationship among the first three stories — each
gingerly perched on an explosive political issue — soon become apparent (Susan's
freak accident is quickly spun into an international crisis; Amelia falls into
an immigration quagmire when her drunk nephew, played by Gael García Bernal,
provokes the border guards on their way home), the fourth story takes awhile to
Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf Japanese teenager whose
mother has recently committed suicide, acts out her grief
and feelings of isolation by throwing herself at every man
who crosses her path. She drifts through the crowded,
pulsing streets of Tokyo, shot by
Rodrigo Pietro as though the city were a beautiful, whimsical contraption that
appears even more startling and dreamlike when the sound drops out. Chieko's
connection to the others is tenuous, but her experience provides the lyrical
counterpoint to what are otherwise Kafkaesque tragedies about individuals
swallowed up by the bureaucratic machinery of nationhood.
The beauty of this film is in its lapidary details, which
sparkle with feeling and surprise. González Iñárritu and Arriaga, both Mexican (González
Iñárritu now resides with his family in the United States), are particularly
attuned to the vulnerability of the foreigner abroad — whether that
vulnerability is real or imagined. After the tour bus takes a detour to the
guide's village to find the closest doctor, the other tourists become jittery
and anxious to leave the wounded passenger behind. But the tourists' paranoia —
they are American, French and British — is in no way justified by the treatment
they receive in the village, where the townspeople show them kindness or stay
out of their way. Conversely, Amelia fully expects the authorities to come to
her aid, but is treated like a criminal first and a person in distress second by
the border guides who find her after her ordeal. In a particularly wrenching
scene, a border cop of apparent Mexican descent cuffs her while ignoring her
pleas for help, responding to her mostly Spanish pleas strictly in English.
Clearly, González Iñárritu knows his Weltschmerz, and he
burrows deep into the existential loneliness of each character to create a
kaleidoscope of cumulative human sadness and grief over the state of the world.
With uncommon empathy and insight, he elicits moving performances from all the
actors — down to the incidental detective who comes to talk to Chieko. The
experience, followed by a chance encounter with her father, leaves him shaken,
disoriented and hitting the nearest bar — by then you know exactly how he feels.
García Bernal, in a smaller role as Santiago, Amelia's
funny, loose cannon of a nephew, is as charming as he is unnerving and tragic.
When little Mike, strapped in the back seat en route to the wedding, remarks
that his mother says Mexico is dangerous, Santiago turns to him with a
mischievous grin and says, "It is. It's full of Mexicans." Young, feisty, prone
to trouble and uncommonly perceptive, Santiago, Chieko and Yussef chafe at the
arbitrary constraints imposed on their lives by others. The limitations feel
like a prison. And for Yussef and Santiago, they very likely become one. This is
the years most heartbreaking film and also one of the best.
BABEL © 2006 Paramount Vantage
All Rights Reserved
Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.