Parents and children cause an extraordinary amount of problems for one another in “Babel,” a sweepingly ambitious epic of anxiety that tries to put its finger on an array of woes afflicting humanity in the early 21st century. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga’s final entry in the trilogy that began with “Amores Perros” and continued with “21 Grams,” new pic similarly features multiple intercut story strands, this time spread across three continents and, per the Biblical title, numerous languages. Effectively building dread and emotional tension as tragic incidents triggered by human stupidity and carelessness steadily multiply, this film, like “21 Grams” in particular, employs a deterministically grim mindset in the cause of its philosophical aspirations, but is gripping nearly all the way. Critical reactions will no doubt range fully across the map, much as they did with “Crash,” which Paramount Vantage should be able to stir to its advantage in creating significant curiosity among American auds craving serious fare, and strong points of identification create real cross-over potential. International prospects are similarly promising.
The title alone is enough to indicate the director and writer’s expansive intentions. But while their overall view may be far-reaching, the moment-to-moment focus remains highly specific, with each case involving wrenching life-and-death situations that on one hand are highly circumstantial and didn’t have to happen, but on the other involve socio-political fallout that speaks directly to the current moment.
From the opening scene in which a goat-herder in a poor Moroccan mountain village acquires a high-powered hunting rifle and ill-advisedly gives it to his two young sons, it’s clear the weapon will be put to some use other than its intended one of hunting jackals. Testing its range, one of the kids fires at a tourist bus making its way down a dusty road in the far distance.
In a middle-class Southern California home, two young blond children are looked after by Mexican nanny Amerlia (Adriana Barraza) who, after failing to find anyone with whom to leave the kids, decides in extremis to have them accompany her south of the border for the day so she can attend her son’s wedding outside Tijuana.
Back in Morocco, Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), the parents of the California kids who have gotten away to recover from the death of a third baby, are riding in the bus with their fellow tourists when Susan suddenly takes a bullet in the upper shoulder.
In Tokyo, foxy deaf-mute student Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) lets her considerable anger allow her volleyball team to lose, has a desultory meeting with her widowed father Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho) and, in an impulsive moment at a crowded restaurant, removes the underwear under her short school skirt and begins flashing her privates at boys at a nearby table.
Back in Morocco, the goatherd informs his boys that some terrorists have killed an American tourist on a bus.
And so it goes, as the filmmakers continue layering urgent distress, irrational behavior, bad luck, misunderstandings, frustrations, erroneous media reports, zealous security responses and downright dumb headedness to shape a tale that despairs at the state of human relations even in the absence of bad intentions or outright evil on the part of anyone involved.
One narrative lapse proves intensely bothersome at the outset: Why does Amelia wait until the very day of her son’s wedding to try to make arrangements for the kids? The film simply requires acceptance of this illogical situation, but one is inclined not to grant it.
Some viewers may also be bothered by the fact that the Japanese storyline initially seems unrelated to the other two, which are instantly connected. But its gathering strength, and the provocatively inventive ways Chieko’s overwhelming frustration is externalized, make its cool surfaces and modernity welcome breaks from the hot, dusty settings of the other dramas.
As the Moroccan story plays out in bits and pieces, Richard and the heavily bleeding Susan are given refuge in a remote village while awaiting an ambulance and testing the patience of their fellow travelers, who suspect they’re in danger of further attacks. Meanwhile, local police exercise little restraint as they try to put a cap on what rapidly becomes, given the current climate, an international incident.
The situation for the couple’s far-away children and their nanny goes from bad to worse in Mexico, reaching genuinely harrowing levels during a lost-in-the-desert odyssey and incidentally touching on hot-button illegal immigrant and border security issues in strictly personal rather than political terms.
The Tokyo story, in the end, unwinds in the most unpredictable manner of the three, reaching a moving height of subjectivity when the soundtrack flips between sound and silence during a wild disco evening to underline Chieko’s sensory remove and creatively conveying her aching need for an emotional connection.
The way the story resolutions are distributed among the various characters may disturb some discerning viewers in their racial/ethnic makeup, and there could be carping in some quarters about a degree of exoticism, despite the fact that Gonzalez Inarritu has gone to great lengths to properly portray all the locations, present everyone in an untouristy way (including the tourists) and cast non-pros recruited locally in many roles, very effectively so.
Unlike the strenuous dramatics on view in “21 Grams,” stars involved at the top of the cast here deliver unshowy, naturalistic perfs. Pitt brings weight and strength that a lesser name might not have provided as Robert, who must endure the uncertainty of his wife’s fate on one front and that of his children on another.
Blanchett spends most of the picture either in agony or passed out on the floor of a hut, but even this she does with customary elegance. Gael Garcia Bernal submerges his natural charm to play Amelia’s unreliable nephew, whose only responsibility is to drive the group safely over the border and back.
Barraza makes abundantly manifest the rising panic and torment Amelia endures for her misjudgment, and both sets of kids–Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid as the Moroccan boys and Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble as the Yanks–are outstandingly expressive without histrionics or cutes.
Kikuchi, however, registers with the most challenging and distinctive perf as a teen who must communicate via sign language and feels a social and emotional outcast for all her physical allure.
Production contributions are excellent, with Rodrigo Prieto’s rugged lensing at one with the mostly barren landscapes, Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise’s editing adroitly intertwining the narrative threads and Gustavo Santaolalla’s grave, inventively arranged original score supplementing numerous tunes on the soundtrack.