A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: #20


2006, R, 142 mins.


Brad Pitt: Richard / Cate Blanchett: Susan / Rinko Kikuchi: Chieko / Gael García Bernal: Santiago / Adriana Barraza: Amelia / Ahmed: Said Tarchani / Yussef: Boubker Ait El Caid

Directed by Alejando Gonzalez Iñárritu / Written by Guillermo Arriaga

In terms of definitively tapping into the fragile mindsets and troubling emotions of his characters, Mexican born director Alejando Gonzalez Iñárritu is arguably one of our most raw filmmakers.  The themes that he has presented in his films are universal constructs, most notable how human beings – as a result of their differences – are unable to communicate with one another in meaningful and constructive ways.  

Despair, sadness, and despondency with subtle hints of hope permeate his past works, like his 2000 debut film AMORES PERROS and his masterful character study, 21 GRAMS from 2003, which was a stunning and brilliantly executed film that many critics (including myself) forgot to mention on their best films of that year (Sean Penn’s performance in MYSTIC RIVER from the same year stole some of its thunder).  Now comes BABEL, which marks Iñárritu’s self-imposed conclusion of his collaboration with screenwriter/novelist Guillermo Arriaga.  Like their other two previous films, BABEL is a film of stunning clarity on human tragedy and the disparities that exist between people that span continents.  It’s penetrating, absorbing, powerful, and fiercely moving.  It certainly moved me.

Anxiety breathes throughout BABEL, as it did in AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS.  All of the films in question undeniably have the same stylistic trappings that tie them together, the most specific being non-linear and fragmented storylines with divergent characters that all seem unrelated but ultimately correlate through time.  Now,  Iñárritu is surely not the first filmmaker to tackle this sort of esoteric and unconventional story structure (films as far ranging as PULP FICTION, MEMENTO, and last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, CRASH, have all flirted with disjointed narratives).  Yet, Iñárritu is one of the those rare filmmaking creeds that is able to make his penchant for multi-layered and disorderly stories seem less like exercises in redundant style and more like necessary elements to the development of the story’s underlining tone and mood.  This is truly felt in BABEL, especially when one considers that his broad and far-reaching storyline spans the globe from Morocco, Tokyo, Southern California, and Mexico. 

Like CRASH, BABEL focuses intrinsically on how people from different cultures in our apparent age of tolerance and acceptance are still unable to communicate effectively with one another for common goals.  This disharmony that humanity continues to experience haunts Iñárritu’s film.  Media experts like Marshall McLuhan foresaw our world being developed into a “global village.”  What BABEL seems to tell us is that – no matter how similar people from across the world are in terms of their experiences and hardships – we have a very long way to go towards becoming a truly harmonious global family.  The brilliance of the film is how it displays how culture prejudices and wild and baseless bigotry often clouds something as simple as the truth.  Reality can often be deceptively clear, but we often go out of our way to make it murky.

What, for example, is easier for some to believe – that an American tourist was the victim of a terrorist’s sniper bullet in a foreign country or that they were simply the victim of a innocent child that was, unfortunately, playing with a rifle?  Simple answers and explanations are hard to come by for the characters in BABEL, which is what I guess makes the film oftentimes heartbreaking to watch.  It’s hard to be a “village” when our willingness to emphasize our differences, not our similarities, hinders our world’s ability to bind together.  Compassion is a distant entity in the film; only bad judgment while trying to survive by the skin of our teeth seems like the only means of existence.

To reinforce this cultural and ethnic divide,  Iñárritu tells multiple stories from different vantage points that all inevitably link together in the most subtle ways in terms of the similar themes that are saturate through them.  All of the stories within the film – at their core – are about families and how parents relate – for better or worse – to their children.  All are potent and emotionally charged for their own reasons, but the film works like a symphony in how it’s all put together.  All of the families come from different levels of wealth and ethnic backgrounds, but the universality of their dilemmas seems constant. 

Like "the butterfly effect”, the film also explores how one seemingly small and inconsequential event on one side of the world can have disastrous effects on the other side.  The snowball effect the film creates is extraordinary, but believable.  For instance, the fairly trivial gift of a gun that a Japanese business man gives to his Moroccan friend leads to one American woman being shot; a Mexican woman being stranded in a desert; her eventual discovery by border authorities whom later deport her back as an illegal immigrant to the US; two young children being stranded in the desert; and also to the death of one young child.  The point here is clear: Iñárritu is saying that we are tied together in the world through the most minute of actions, but it is these tiny activities that act as catalysts for our greater, more far-reaching inability to connect with one another.  We fail to see our commonalities, and often the consequence for this is literally the death of those we care about.

On these themes, BABEL is a most memorable and transfixing film that really stays with a person hours after viewing it.  We emotionally relate strongly to all of the stories in the film and it’s surprising how we relate to those that are distant cultures removed from us.  There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” in the film, nor are their deaths deliberately telegraphed or premeditated Some of the deaths are at the result of twisted fate, chance, and pure indirect accidents in logic.  On this level, BABEL works magnificently. 

However, if one studies the film on a basic level, it is very easy very early on to see exactly how all of the pieces to its narrative jigsaw puzzle fit together.  There are times when the film’s obviousness is so apparent that it drowns out some of its authority.  It’s as if Iñárritu and Arriaga think that they are smarter than they actually are with the multiple stories, trying to impress us with what they see as an abstract and highly interpretive piece of filmmaking.  Whereas AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS were Cubist paintings, BABEL is more like a simply painted landscape or still life.  Deciphering BABEL is relatively simple.  The sheer predictability of how the story unfolds and how characters relate to one another is the film’s only really shaky and irritating element.  I found myself thoroughly engaged in each of the little stories – they are little masterpieces in their own ways – its just how they all fit together and how easily they do that hinders the film.

Aside from the film’s blatancy and telegraphed story threads, BABEL is still whole-heartedly compelling.  The film tells four stories in all.  The first one shows two young children (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid)  in Morocco whose father (Mohamed Akhzam) has purchased a gun in order to shoot wild animals that threaten his sheep herd.  While out tending to their grazing sheep one day one of the brothers coaxes the other to test the boasted range capabilities of the rifle (they are having doubts that it can hit a target up to three kilometers away).  So, one boy aims for a bus.  He fires a shot and thinks he has missed.  The bus suddenly stops.

This leads to the second strand of the film that involves an American couple, Susan (Cate Blanchett) and Richard (Brad Pitt) who are on vacation in Morocco.  It is this couple that are on the bus that was shot at by one of the Moroccan youths and it is actually Susan that is hit.  Her injuries are life threatening and there is no hospital in sight.  When they finally reach a village and get some modest medical aid, the story has hit the American embassy and news headlines are flashing around the world that Susan was the victim of a terrorist attack.  The Moroccan youths  and their father – realizing the gravity of their situation - flee from the authorities, perhaps with the understanding that they will find it difficult to explain to anyone what actually happened.  Meanwhile, Richard tries desperately to save his wife’s life, all while keeping in touch back home in America to ensure that his two young children are well looked after with him as his wife being away.

This leads into the third story of BABEL that concerns an illegal immigrant named Amelia (Adriana Barraza) who has worked for Susan and Richard for years and could aptly take claim to having raised their son and daughter on her own.  When Richard calls her to reveal what has happened to Susan he begs for her to spend a few extra days tending over his kids.  The problem is that her son is about to be married soon back in Mexico.  She can’t obviously miss the wedding, but she also just can’t simply leave the children behind as well.  As a result, she decides to take the kids with her and – with the aid of her wild-eyed nephew, Santiago (Gael García Bernal) - heads down through the border so they all can make it to the wedding.  The two kids (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) don’t seem too keen on the whole idea, and Santiago does not like it either, maybe because his Aunt is an illegal immigrant and that crossing the border with two American kids may prove difficult.  When they do, in fact, try to return home from the wedding, their situation makes a turn for the absolute worse.

The final sub-plot - and, in my mind, the most memorable and sad - involves a deaf-mute Japanese teen name Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) who is trying to cope with her mother’s recent death and with a world that she has difficulty communicating to.  Her mother was a close and warm-hearted figure in her life, but now that she is gone all she has left is her father (Kôji Yakusho), who is cold and distant.  He tries hard to establish good relations with his troubled daughter, but he can’t seem to get through to her.  In a desperate desire to reach out to people on a meaningful and emotional level, Chieko engages in a series of chilling and unnerving acts that involve her being increasingly vulnerable and sexually promiscuous.  Her willingness to essentially prostitute herself out to any faceless man is pathetic, but she is more of a lonely and troubled soul than a deviant one.  Her story and her father’s boomerangs back to Morocco and the gun, but this occurs – as mentioned – in manners that will hardly take anyone by surprise.

Again, the way in with which al of the stories relate is nothing altogether unexpected, but each of them work stupendously as little short films.  The performances in all of them are universally solid and exceptionally.  Cate Blanchett is very effective in her tricky and limited role as a grieving and mortally wounded wife, and Brad Pitt has never looked more withered and world weary – not to mention old - as her distressed and demoralized husband.  Pitt gets considerable attention for being a pretty boy, so it's really all the more gratifying to see an underrated talent wipe away any semblance of ego and vanity by immersing himself in his role.  Beyond the obvious star power in the film, the real standout performance comes from Rinko Kikuchi as the sexually repressed and tortured Japanese teenager who is looking for love and acceptance.  Her story is debatably the most stirring and gloomy and it's especially alarming to see how much she exploits herself to get what she feels is understanding and attention.  Considering the emotional tailspin that she goes through and her spiritual journey, Kikuchi’s performance can be seen as tender, poignant, risky, and courageous.

Alejando Gonzalez Iñárritu won Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and after watching the gripping, tragic, and haunting BABEL, the accolade seems justified.  The film is a very worthy – if not slightly flawed – final film in his “death” trilogy that continues his predilection towards multiple, non-linear storylines and divergent characters whose similarities also reveal unwanted differences.  With superbly written stories within the larger story, impeccable cinematography (from BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN’S  Rodrigo Prieto, who creates some truly memorable and tense visuals), forceful and authoritative direction by Iñárritu that has a sense of urgency and pathos, and some great performances by the leads and an astonishing performance by one of its supporting players, BABEL overcomes some of its insecurities and becomes  a richly nuanced assemble piece.  It reinforces the notion that our worldwide multiculturalism is also an unfortunate inhibitor of a greater – and more widespread – understanding of how we relate and perceive one another.  The film is despotic in terms of it showcasing its characters on the verge of decay, but it ultimately has slight stands of compassion and hope that can be extrapolated.  In this way, BABEL is brutally honest and tragic, but it's also cautious and sincere about its subject matter and worldview.  For that, the film is another ambitious triumph for Iñárritu, who is emerging as one of cinema’s most gifted and unique new voices.

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