2006, R, 142 min. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Gael García Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, Kôji Yakusho, Said Tarchani, Boubker Ait El Caid, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 10, 2006
Shut your mouth. Communication is impossible. There are too many languages. There are too many tongues. And there is far too much cultural white noise to ever decipher the emotions and intent above the clatter and ricochet issuing from the globalized maw. The sheer volume of linguistic and societal back-spatter promises discontinuity that only ends in one of two ways: silence or babble. Working in one of the few media that resist geographic and cultural borders, Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) have woven together four disparate, interrelated stories amidst this overarching theme and in doing so have crafted an eloquent and electrifying depiction of mankind's increasingly fractured state, where small acts of kindness are freighted with unpredictable and often disastrous repercussions and desperate hours are never more than minutes away. Exquisitely crafted from its jarring musical score (by Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla) to its famous faces (here scrubbed clean of the protective veneer of the West) and legions of unknown and nonprofessional actors (revelation upon revelation), Babel is an incendiary piece of cinematic ordnance, backlighting incipient chaos and the random yet infinitely complex nature of human events with the pitiless glare of a white phosphorous flare. It opens with a wealthy young American couple (Pitt, Blanchett) vacationing in Morocco. She is concerned about the local water, quality thereof, but more worrying is the bullet in her near future, fired from a rifle by a couple of Moroccan children who are playing when they should be herding their family's goats. This in turn sparks an international incident and leads directly to the couple's late return to Southern California, where their nanny Amelia (Barraza) is expecting to attend her son's wedding just across the border in Mexico. Saddled with the Americans' children (Fanning, Gamble), Amelia ends up hauling these privileged preteens to the wedding with help from her hotheaded nephew Santiago (Bernal, who can do more with his eyes than most people can do with their entire bodies). Meanwhile, the family of goatherds is suddenly bearing the full brunt of the Moroccan authorities, while continents away, in Japan, a deaf-mute teenager (Kikuchi) drops Ecstasy with her friends and embarks on a defeatist and boldly naked attempt to sway the attentions of her prominent father (the great Koji Yakusho). But even he has a tenuous, integral relationship to the brass-jacketed Moroccan projectile. Much of the pleasure – if pleasure it indeed is, and I'm none too sure about that – of Babel comes from deciphering the horrific daisy chain we're presented with; suffice to say Iñárritu and Arriaga confound expectations throughout, with each successive layer and storyline dovetailing (frequently in nonlinear fashion) and interlocking with all the others. It's a masterful film, the kind you itch to see twice or more, as elliptical as a dream and as direct as the short sharp shock of lead kissing flesh. (See interview with Iñárritu on p.62 of this week's Screens section.)