Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
(in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Japanese with English subtitles as needed)
It’s trendy these days to have several almost unrelated stories told in a single film. Babel tells three stories set on three continents and tells them very well. The three settings: Japan, Morocco, and Mexico/California are inter-cut skillfully. The filmmakers avoided possible confusion when switching from one story to another by making the look of each setting distinct. The pulsing cityscape of Tokyo is distinct from the colorful, tacky and gritty border region of Mexico and California and both of those look very different from the remote desert of Morocco. All three are beautifully shot on location, employing local extras. The over-arching theme is that our world’s cultures, while widely varied, are interdependent. A butterfly flaps it’s wings in Morocco and events are set in motion in Mexico and Tokyo.
My favorite of the stories concerns a Japanese deaf-mute teenage girl who is going through a very hard time for a number of reasons. Her mother committed suicide, she has trouble relating to boys due to her deafness, and she believes that the police may be investigating her father in relation to her mother’s death. The first scene set in Japan shows Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) playing an intense game of volleyball where she gets booted by the referee after making an obscene gesture in response to a call she didn’t like. We then follow her around to the dentist, to a teen club and then home. We can see how she becomes more and more frustrated as more and more things go wrong – excellent character definition. Both the actress and the writer deserve credit for outstanding work in creating “Chieko”.
In a disco scene we experience Chieko’s disorientation by having the loud music (very cool Japanese pop) pulse on and abruptly shut off (as she would experience it.) The scene told us a lot about how she experiences life without explaining it explicitly. It’s also a very visually captivating scene. Another scene at a water fountain and playground in Japan was beautifully shot and also advanced the story by explaining how Chieko became frustrated and angry.
Meanwhile in Moroccan desert, two boys are playing with a rifle (they’re supposed to be hunting jackals) and shoot at a bus, hitting an American tourist (Cate Blanchette) creating a crisis for her and her husband (Brad Pitt) who’s extremely frustrated with the difficulty he has getting help for his wife. It’s a nightmare scenario for any tourist from a developed country: a medical emergency in a third world country. They divert the bus to a small, photogenic village with one phone and a “doctor” who can’t do much except slow the bleeding. I can’t blame Brad Pitt as actor but to me he couldn’t step outside his star persona and play this role effectively. There was nothing that I could cite as less than a skillful performance – but I just couldn’t forget that he’s Brad Pitt. He never seemed to melt into his role as an ordinary American tourist who’s going crazy with frustration in these circumstances. We did see how the couple was having marital trouble before the shooting and came together as a result of the crisis. That crisis results in the couple delaying their return to California where their two children are being cared for by a Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza.)
Back in California, Amerlia (the nanny) makes a fateful decision: to take the kids to Mexico for her son’s wedding since she can’t find anyone to take care of them. Later, after a very colorful and well-shot wedding, she decides (bad decision #2) to get into a car with her drunken nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) who gets them into heap big trouble at the border.
One thing that bothered me about both the nanny’s story and the Moroccan boys’ story was that – in both cases – the point of view of the film was that their bad decisions (shooting at a bus in the boys’ case) weren’t anything for which they should be held culpable. This is the common notion that these things “just happen” and they’re sympathetic characters so we should feel sorry for them when they suffer the consequences.
The musical score was well chosen to be specific to each of the three cultures. So both visually and aurally the stories are distinct in a very pleasing way. The length of the segments (between cuts to another locale) was wisely kept long enough so that the viewer doesn’t feel as if he’s constantly being jostled into another storyline. There’s also plenty of action – a beat every couple of minutes keeps the stories moving. I think that it’s wise to do a “message” movie this way: lots of action, not too talky (note to future directors.)
Babel can be compared to 2005’s Crash (Best Picture Oscar). Both deal with the theme of how interdependent and interrelated today’s world is. Of the two, I prefer Babel on the strength of the cinematography, the score and the outstanding Japanese segment. And Babel is a big-screen movie that will lose some of its beauty in the transition to DVD.
Images are copyright Paramount Classics.
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