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Babel   B+

Paramount Vantage

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Said Tarchani, Boubker Ait El Caid, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble, Mohamed Akhzam, Peter Wight.

Review by Rob Vaux

Complaints about a movie like Babel have to be taken in context, because the ambition and talent on display automatically set it above most other films. Not only does it purport to be about Something Really Important, but director Alejandro González Iñárritu actually has the chops to back it up, as he did with earlier films like 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Here, again, he builds a complex structure of overlapping dramatic threads, bouncing back and forth in time while slowly displaying the invisible connections between seemingly unrelated groups of people. Unlike his previous efforts, it feels a bit more like a stunt here -- showing off its technical prowess rather than serving any overarching dramatic purpose. Yet it still works surprisingly well, and even when it doesn't, the central message is heartfelt and exquisitely delivered.

As the ads suggest, Babel concerns itself with our inability to communicate, a sad irony in a world where technology has bound us so closely together. It echoes through the characters' differences both in spoken languages and verbal intentions, as well as myriad devices such as videophones and television sets that can tell us everything without revealing anything at all. Babel is at its most impressive when exploring this theme, which it does without disrupting the more straightforward particulars of the story. We pass between four separate dramatic strands over the course of several days: an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) traveling through Morocco in an effort to expunge some unmentioned grief; a Mexican housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) watching the couple's young children in San Diego while preparing for her son's wedding; a Tunisian shepherd (Driss Roukhe) who gives his two boys a rifle in order to ward off jackals; and a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) struggling with the temptations of her age and a sense of lingering loss.

Three of the stories connect fairly directly: the shepherd's sons take a thoughtless shot at a distant bus. The bullet strikes Blanchett, forcing an emergency stop far from help. Pitt's distraught husband now depends on Barraza to watch his children, even if it means her missing the wedding, and so on. Iñárritu unfolds them all with a growing sense of tension, stressing fate's cruel indifference while imbuing every figure with generous amounts of sympathy. Global politics plays a hand as well, quietly embracing everything from Third World exploitation to racial and generational divides. The butterfly effect is in abundance here, creating expanding ripples of tragedy from one small act. As screenwriting, it's quite impressive, but it also founders at a few key points. The segues between time and space make the occasional misstep, with crises instigating action in one setting after they have chronologically come and gone in another and the like. In addition, the Japanese segment remains curiously separate from the other three, bound only by news reports on the television until the very end. When the connecting revelation comes, it's more incidental than elegant, and while its tale is compelling, it sometimes feels like it belongs in a different film.

Some of the characters struggle to engage us as well. Credit Iñárritu with maintaining the common humanity in his disparate figures -- emphasizing universal emotions to link us to them -- but for all his efforts, a few of them feel too much like convenient archetypes rather than fleshed-out human beings. It's the Americans who come across as the most listless: Pitt alternates between route pain and cringing hostility, while Blanchett is reduced to a few moaning lines as her wound slowly worsens. Conversely, Barraza and Gael García Bernal (playing her decent but irresponsible nephew) command the lion's share of our sympathies, while Kikuchi's silent pain marks the film's most heartbreaking moments.

Luckily, the problems remain largely on the surface, in those few instances where technique and mechanics aren't quite up to the Herculean task set before them. Babel's richest veins lie deeper than that, as Iñárritu's spiritual side combines with his insight into human nature to transcend the shakier elements. The film is at its best in the midst of tiny cataclysms, where misunderstanding leads to frustration, conflict, and disaster. Good intentions abound in this world, but the limits of our vision sow the seeds of terrible destruction. (In another burst of irony, the fiercest conflicts occur between those who can communicate the easiest -- Pitt and an obsequious British tourist, Kikuchi and her thoughtless peers, the shepherd family and local police, etc.) Yet it retains a fragile sense of hopefulness as well. The interconnectedness that causes so much trouble can also help us transcend our differences, and as painful as life can be, our commonality ensures that some lingering thread will carry us to the next chapter of existence. Iñárritu orchestrates the all-pervading hum of that notion exquisitely, lifting the story up when it begins to flag and creating poetry where there might have been only passable melodrama.

To be sure, we're in rarified air here to begin with, where expectations are sky high and the filmmakers strive for nothing less than perfection. Pretense constantly waits to derail the proceedings, but the director knows himself too well to fall into that trap. Babel isn't perfect, and it stumbles often enough to mar an otherwise beautiful tapestry. But the fact that it illuminates some real truths about the human condition -- without narcissism or self-importance, couched in deceptively straightforward terms -- speaks to the best that film can be. Iñárritu's reach may exceed his grasp here, but only just. In this case, an earnest effort more than forgives the minor bumps in the road.

Review published 10.27.2006.

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