Although it has roots in the Bible, when I hear the word ďBabel,Ē I think of Douglas Adamsí ďThe Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,Ē where something called a Babel fish was put into the ear, allowing one to understand foreign languages. Of course, Adams was no doubt referencing chapter 11 of Genesis, where humans tried to build a tower to the heavens, and an angry God halted their efforts by giving them all different languages so they could not communicate with each other. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (who worked together on Amores Perros and 21 Grams) have intentionally named their new film Babel; itís a tip-off that the failure to communicate is the storyís dominant theme.
The first images we see are of the Moroccan desert. Two young boys are given a rifle by their father so that they can shoot the jackals that threaten their sheep herds. Teaching themselves to use it, they climb up a high cliff and take aim at a tourist bus on the dirt road below. Neither of them thinks the bullet could ever reach the bus, but the bullet does go that far, striking an American woman named Susan (Cate Blanchett) in the neck. After transporting her to the doctor of a local village, Susanís husband Richard (Brad Pitt) tries to arrange for the American embassy to send in an ambulance or helicopter. The incident is incorrectly interpreted as a terrorist act. Consequently, political red tape delays help from arriving, leaving Richard there with a critically injured wife, a doctor who doesnít have the equipment to save her, and a busload of fellow passengers who want to get out of the area before they get shot.
The Moroccan boys, eventually realizing they have shot someone, hide the gun and try to keep their father from finding out what they did. Meanwhile, back in the United States, Susan and Richardís housekeeper Amelia (Adriana Barraza) watches their two children. She was supposed to have a day off to attend her sonís wedding in Mexico. Not wanting to miss the event, she decides to take the kids with her. She hitches a ride back with her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal), whose actions get them stopped by the border patrol. What happens next threatens to change all their lives permanently.
Most interesting is the story of a deaf-mute Japanese girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Reeling from her motherís death, Chieko is now emotionally distant from her father. She acts out her sorrow by announcing her sexual availability to any man who will notice. For the longest time, it is unclear how Chiekoís story is connected to the others in the film. I wonít divulge that here, except to say that it is, essentially, the starting point for everything else that happens.
Babel is being pushed as a potential Oscar candidate, and there are really two types of Oscar hopefuls. The first kind is safe, uplifting, and easily accessible. A Beautiful Mind and Finding Neverland are terrific examples. The second kind is dark, ambiguous, and more thematic than story-driven. These are a much harder sell. Babel is this kind of hopeful. The film depends much less on consistent plot development and more on ambiance and atmosphere. Inarritu allows scenes to hold so that you can ponder how the theme (the negative effect of communication breakdown) applies to the characters. As a result, at the end there is little or no resolution, no clear-cut conclusion, no feel-good emotion to walk away with. Viewers who prefer a plot that hits regular beats may be over- (or under-) whelmed by the approach. Having been very familiar with Inarrituís prior films, I knew what to expect, and Babel is the kind of movie I would recommend to a specific audience. If you donít mind sitting and soaking up the little details and absorbing a theme as deep as it will go, then you may agree that this film is quite rewarding.
Babel certainly has some interesting things to say about our global communication breakdown. Minor things can turn into international incidents, and cultural customs can be misinterpreted. Itís quite provocative how the movie depicts that, particularly in the scenes with Susan and Richard. Thereís a nervousness that comes from seeing this guy try to save his wife in the middle of bureaucratic negotiations between nations. Other times, the breakdown is more personal. Chieko wouldnít be half as troubled as she is if only she could connect with her father.
The filmmakers suggest that when communication stops, one seemingly isolated tragedy can spin off and create another one. The tragedy in Chiekoís life indirectly leads to one in the lives of the Moroccan boys, which leads to Susan being shot, which leads to Amelia taking the kids to Mexico and having border patrol problems. Itís like a chain of bad things happening.
The greatest strength of Babel is also its minor weakness. I like the fact that Inarritu doesnít rush through any of the five stories. He makes each one whole, allowing us to feel like weíre in these individual countries witnessing the events firsthand. (In other words, you kind of lose yourself in the film.) And there are also moments where he takes the time to put us in the mindset of the characters, most notably a hypnotic sequence where the deaf Chieko attends a rave. At the same time, the movie feels a little too long. With some of the scenes, I got the point long before the film was ready to stop making it.
Still, I canít deny being seriously affected by Babel. I felt kind of sad when it was over, and I have thought about it a lot in the 48 hours since I saw it. This is not an easy movie to watch. It deals with things that inherently make us uncomfortable. Yet its artistry is in the way it dares to confront those very things. Babel knows that we need to communicate about these ideas and, more importantly, it knows what can happen if we donít.
( 1/2 out of four)
Babel is rated R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 22 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat