Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his writing partner Guillermo Arriaga are certainly ambitious fellows. They demonstrated this with Amores Perros (2000) and again with 21 Grams (2003) — both films with multiple stories that ultimately connect to create a larger picture. With Babel they become more geographically ambitious with interconnected stories set in the U.S., Mexico, Morocco and Japan. They have also attempted to become grander in terms of theme, trying to create a movie that examines the difficulty humans have in communicating with each other. And in the main, they succeed. But at what? They’ve made a film that’s more to be admired than liked, more to be thought about than felt. It’s a good film — maybe close to a great one — but one that I have no desire to revisit.
Babel is both original and an obvious outgrowth of their previous work. The comparisons that have been made to Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005) are hardly worth discussing. (Haggis makes one mediocre multi-story movie about racism and he owns the structure and the idea that racism is bad?) If the film is to be compared to anything outside of Inarritu’s filmography, it might more profitably be compared to Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), which it more resembles. However, the aims of the two films are so different — Syriana is an angry defiant shout in the face of despair; Babel is in search of the possibility of human connection — that the comparison ultimately highlights the differences.
Babel, of course, takes its name from the Bible story about the Tower of Babel that was being built to reach heaven — before an outraged Jehovah put a stop to it by creating different languages so that the builders could no longer communicate. The film goes further in that it includes cultural as well as language barriers. The storyline is grounded in a kind of ripple-effect scenario that comes down to nothing more than a gesture of friendship (in this case, the gift of a rifle to a Moroccan hunting guide) that puts into motion a series of events that are improbably — though hardly impossibly — interconnected.
As a basic concept, there’s nothing all that new about it. It has its roots in farce comedy and its multi-story structure built on one act or item isn’t essentially different from Julien Duvivier’s portmanteau film Tales of Manhattan (1942), which follows the fate of a tail-coat from its creation by a tailor to its final days as the outfit on a scarecrow. The difference here lies in approach, structure and intent.
Inarritu only follows the rifle in question through two exchanges, so that he isn’t following the item, but rather its impact. Moreover, the story is not given to us in a linear fashion. It starts with the sale of the rifle to a third party. The connection to its origins (and the reasons that may, in part, be behind the friendly gesture) are only slowly uncovered. The thrust of Babel in this regard is that events that seem random are actually all connected to one another. It’s a solid premise and it’s well developed through its stories, not in the least because the characters themselves will never be aware of the connections and their own parts in the larger overall drama.
After all, what possible connection could a story about two Moroccan boys — who (mostly because they don’t really understand the rifle they’ve been given) accidentally shoot an American woman (Cate Blanchett) on a tour bus — have to a story about a troubled deaf-mute girl (Rinko Kikuchi, The Reason) in Tokyo? And what could that story have in common with a story about an illegal immigrant housekeeper (Adriana Barraza, Amores Perros) taking two American kids (Elle Fanning, Because of Winn-Dixie, and newcomer Nathan Gamble) across the border into Mexico in order to be at her son’s wedding? And yet in the context of the film, these stories are all dependent on each other — and are all grounded in the inability to communicate with each other. (It’s worth noting that most are all also rooted in the “intrusion” of foreigners into other cultures.)
Inarritu handles the various strands of the stories masterfully, eliciting strong performances from his cast (sometimes in relatively thankless roles, e.g., Gael Garcia Bernal). Better still, he doesn’t spoon-feed the audience, and he doesn’t give all the answers. There is much left deliberately unanswered at the end because the story isn’t really over. It will go on. The question the film leaves us with is where it will go. That some of the momentary resolutions end more or less happily and the final image is one of despair mixed with hope, however, suggests that Inarritu believes that communication and understanding are a possibility that is worth striving for. It does not, however, transform Babel into any less of a shattering experience. Rated R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke