Mark Reviews Movies

BABEL

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Said Tarchani, Boubker Ait El Caid, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho, Mohamed Akhzam, Mustapha Rachidi

MPAA Rating: R  (for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use)

Running Time: 2:22

Release Date: 10/27/06 (NY & LA); 11/10/06 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel is an ambitious piece of filmmaking about humanity's inability to communicate on a global level narrowed down to the way people can barely talk to each other on a personal level. The film's ambition, unfortunately, exceeds its reach, let alone its grasp. The title refers to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel in which a united humanity attempts to build a tower to reach the heavens. God sees the act as one of glorification for themselves and so confuses their languages, scattering them across the globe. There is no specific reference to the tale, but anyone familiar with it will catch the connection. The movie focuses on rifle, American-manufactured, Japanese-owned, and Moroccan-received and -fired, that sparks an international crisis. González and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga wisely ignore the political machinations and blaming going on unseen but hinted to in the background and focus on how the event affects those connected to the weapon. Part political allegory, all melodrama, the movie is the weakest of González' so-called "Death Trilogy," which includes Amores Perros and 21 Grams, primarily because it follows four families when only three of them feel relevant to the narrative and thematic proceedings.

The movie opens in Morocco, where Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi), a goat herder, has purchased a hunting rifle to keep jackals away from his flock. He gives his two young sons, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), the responsibility of protecting the animals for the first time with the weapon. After missing the first jackal they spot, they attempt to test the rifle's range by firing at vehicles on the road below. After Yussef shoots at a bus, the bus stops, and the boys flee. Back in California, Amelia (Adrianna Barraza), a nanny, is watching her wards. The children's parents are away, and she is preparing to go to Mexico for her son's wedding. After learning that there is no one to replace her to watch the children, Amelia decides to take them with her to Mexico with her nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal). Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are two Americans—the children's parents—visiting Morocco, Richard reminds his wife, to be alone, but there is intense tension between them. While traveling on a bus, Susan is suddenly shot. In Tokyo, a young, deaf girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) and her father Yasujiro (Kôji Yakusho) are trying to overcome the suicide of her mother.

The movie is shot on location in each of the locales, and González develops a unique visual and editorial style for each segment. The movie cuts in and out of the four stories and not necessarily in chronological order. The connection to the rifle is obvious for the most part here, as Susan is shot, her shooting results in Amelia's ultimately tragic decision, and the family in Morocco must deal with the tragedy that results from what the sons considered a harmless, albeit incredibly foolish, act. Arriaga's screenplay paints these characters in universal terms. Yussef looks in a girl as she changes and later masturbates to the memory (normal teenage curiosity, although the revelation of the girl's identity later on makes it a bit darker). The two brothers bicker in familiar terms. Chieko longs to lose her virginity, seemingly as a substitute for the affection lost after her mother's death. Amelia desire to see her son wed is hardly foreign, and the wedding itself is not unlike any other. There are obviously differences, too. The two children (played by Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) may know Spanish but are still shocked to watch children joyously chase around a decapitated chicken. A Moroccan tour guide (played by Mohamed Akhezam, another non-professional actor who, like those playing central family, is completely convincing) helps Richard while most of the Europeans on the bus want to leave he and his dying wife behind.

Even the couple is at a crossroads of non-communication. We learn from their daughter that they have recently lost a son to SIDS, and their introductory conversation is more than reminiscent of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants"—nothing is said, but everything is said. In the Tokyo story, there's a language barrier within the culture in that Chieko and her friends speak in sign language. Chieko's story is perhaps the most emotionally involving in the movie, because of its dedicated focus to her plight. Rinko Kikuchi gives a heartbreaking performance, full of pain and vulnerability. Oddly, Chieko's story is also superfluous to the larger picture; the only connection is that her father originally owned the rifle, a fact that has nothing to do with her. That connection's relevance is questionable, and not enough time is spent fleshing out characters on any continent, leaving multiple questions and an overall lack of emotional involvement. There are certainly some affective scenes, especially a scene between Richard and Susan with a makeshift bedpan that reinforces the strength of their relationship. The entire scenario in Morocco hints at the United States' seeking of terrorism wherever it could possibly be found, and Amelia's story brings up ethical issues of immigration policy. Chieko's story, again, offers nothing in terms of politics.

The political moral of the movie seems to be that things will work out no matter what if you happen to live in the developed democracies of the world, but if you happen to be part of perceived threats to that way of life (an Arabic nation or the source of illegal immigration), there will be a price to be paid directly or indirectly at the hands of the West. Intellectually, it seems an honest view of a harsh reality, but the stories in Babel never fully come together as a whole or individually to make it an emotional truth.

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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