WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Babel is mentioned only twice in the Bible. Once in a list of the
names of places over which Nimrod ruled (Genesis 10:10) and again
in Genesis 11:9 which names the place where God did "confound the
language of all the earth" and "from thence did [God] scatter them
abroad ..." The reason: because the people wanted to build a tower
that might reach all the way up to where God was.
Working in tandem with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, director
Alejandro González Iñárritu completes the pair's unofficial trilogy with
BABEL, the multi-story, chronologically-confused drama built around
the concepts of random violence, its aftermaths and the notion that
on some level, we all are connected.
That essentially was the theme of the previous collaborations
between Arriaga and González Iñárritu. As they have expanded their
viewpoint from beyond Mexico (wonderfully handled in their debut
AMORES PERROS) to include the United States (21 GRAMS, with
a star-studded cast including Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benecio
Del Toro), in my opinion, their message does not take on more urgency
but instead because more opaque and diffused.
BABEL is the most ambitious of the three movies in this
"unofficial" trilogy as it tracks stories that unfold over three continents
in more than a dozen languages. Arriaga also has expanded his
template to include a fourth major plot, instead of the trio that make
up the others. While that fourth strand arguably is the most intriguing,
it is also the most superfluous, bearing only the most tangential
relation to the other central dramas.
The movie opens in Morocco where a goatherd (Mustapha Rachidi)
purchases a high-powered rifle for protection of his animals from
predators, notably jackals. He turns it over to his two pubescent sons,
the older but timid Ahmed (Saïd Tarchani) and the younger, bolder
Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid). Yussef is a natural shot and he taunts
his older brother's ineptitude. As a challenge, and to see if indeed the
gun can fire up to three kilometers, they aim at a roadway that passes
below their mountain perch. Yussef fires and nothing happens right
away. Then the bus slowly stops and the boys realize they may have
done something terrible. So like any guilty child, they hide the evidence
(placing the rifle in a cave) and return home.
Indeed, the shot not only struck the bus, it hit one of the
passengers, an American woman Susan (Cate Blanchett) who is
traveling with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt). In a few lines of
dialogue, we learn the couple is on vacation in Morocco in the hopes
of a fresh start, after losing a child to SIDS and a brief separation.
Their strained relationship is tested further once Susan is wounded.
Richard demands that she be taken to a hospital or at the very least
the nearest town, which is several kilometers away. Of course, this
doesn't sit well with the rest of the travelers, many of whom are
understandably anxious. In fact, the shooting touches off an
international incident with news reports of terrorists hiding in the hills
and a massive search for the gunman. (It ultimately ends in tragedy
for another family.)
Meanwhile, back at Susan and Richard's home in San Diego,
their two children Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble)
are being cared for by Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza).
Because the parents are obviously delayed, things get dicey for
Amelia. She is set to make a return trip to Mexico for her son's
wedding. When the expected relative doesn't show up, she is forced
to take the children along with her and her hotheaded nephew
Santiago (Gael García Bernal). The trip begins peacefully enough but
as the day wears on Santiago gets drunk. The return trip becomes a
nightmare when they attempt to cross back into the United States
and the border guards question how these two Anglo children came
to be with them. Amelia doesn't have any papers to indicate she had
permission to take the children across the border. Instead of trying to
work things out, Santiago, whom the guard recognizes is drunk,
makes a run for it and abandons Amelia and the kids in the desert,
leaving them to find their own way home. Amelia ends up a wanted
woman and the end result is not a happy one for her either.
The fourth story is set in Japan and it is the most intriguing. A
deaf mute Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is coping with the aftermath of her
mother's suicide. She feels estranged from her father (Kôji Yakusho)
and is navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence. Because of
her handicap, Chieko feels particularly isolated and rejected. She will
do almost anything to gain the attention of boys, from going without
panties beneath her school uniform to making up a story to attract
the attentions of a handsome, older detective (Satoshi Nikaido). This
story at least offers tentative hope as Chieko comes to an
understanding with her father.
The performances in the film are a mixed bag, as one might
expect from a cast comprised of veterans, newcomers and
non-professionals. Truthfully, I was least impressed by Pitt and
Blanchett; he has one highly touted scene that requires him to
break down in tears that to me seemed grandstanding and designed
to appeal to the Academy. Blanchett has absolutely nothing to do
in the film but suffer. She does it admirably but her character is
nonexistent -- she's simply a plot point. (Although there is a sort
of happy ending to their story.)
Barraza does a nice job with the part of Amelia, a woman
determined to share in her son's happiness, but I could not but help
feeling that her character would have been a bit more savvy in
dealing with the border guards and she simply did nothing to exert
any control over her nephew. García Bernal appears to be enjoying
the chance to play a reckless character, yet again, I felt he was more
of a necessity for the sake of the story than a fully-drawn character.
Kikuchi emerged as the most fascinating character, fully formed
and interesting. In fact, I felt that an entire film could have been built
around her. The fact that her connection to the main tale was so
insignificant -- her father had once owned the rifle used in the shooting
but had given it to his guide as a gift -- made me question why we
were even following her story, even though it was the best in the
I had gone into the initial screening with high expectations
and when I came away underwhelmed while so many of my
colleagues were raving about the film, I began to wonder if I had
missed something. But two subsequent viewings only confirmed
my initial impressions. I came away with strong admiration for Rinko
Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza, for Rodrigo Pietro's masterful
cinematography, and for Gustavo Santolalla's score. But overall, I
remained unimpressed. The idea of the ripple effect of events has
been handled by other movies (including the first two by these
filmmakers) that I somehow was hoping there would be something
deeper or more meaningful in the message of BABEL.
Reportedly, the director and the screenwriter have had a
falling out and are not planning to work together again any time
soon. That may be a blessing in disguise. Arriaga provided the script
for THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (which also
demonstrated his use of triptych stories). Perhaps the two men need
to take a break for a bit and refresh their creative juices. BABEL, like
its biblical counterpart, is confounding.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual
content, language and some drug use
Running time: 142 mins.
Viewed at the Park Avenue Screening Room and twice on DVD
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.