Image source. Copyright Paramount Vantage, 2006.
“Pain is universal – but so is hope,” declares the weighty description on the back cover of the DVD for Babel. You know from the start that director Alejandro González Iñárritu is aiming for the deep end here. And boy, would you be right. With four intertwining stories set on three different continents played by an all-star international cast in seven different languages, Iñárritu tries to weave a grand canvas of human suffering with a cross-cultural, “lost in translation” twist. He comes up short, but in its good moments, Babel does manage to impart a powerful message about the isolating, despairing effects of miscommunication.
Babel starts its epic exposition in rural, rural Morocco, where it’s a good day if even one car shoots through this seemingly endless North African desert on a road to nowhere. Two young boys named Yussef and Ahmed (Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani) acquire a brand-new Winchester rifle. While testing the rifle one day, they accidentally shoot a tourist bus that, for some reason, has decided to travel through this middle of nowhere. They gravely wound an American woman named Susan (Cate Blanchett), forcing the tourist bus to stop and make an emergency detour. Over the next few hours, that one tiny bullet tears apart the lives of everyone involved – Susan, her estranged husband Richard (Brad Pitt), the two boys, their father (Mustapha Rachidi) and the man who sold them the rifle (Abdelkader Bara). But there’s more to come. Half a world away, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), the Mexican nanny Susan and Richard hired to look after their children (Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble) in San Diego, is forced to stay with the kids longer than she expected because of Susan’s injury. She doesn’t want to miss her son’s wedding right across the border in Tijuana, so she brings the children to the wedding alongside her reckless nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal). Only one catch: she’s an illegal immigrant. And in Japan, Chieko Wataya (Rinko Kikuchi), the deaf-mute daughter of the original owner of the cursed Winchester rifle (Koji Yakusho), finds herself both struggling to cope with her mother’s recent suicide and humiliated in her attempts to meet up with guys she likes. She’s about to take her frustrations to another level.
Here we have four stories of people cast from their comfortable lifestyle into threatening uncertainty, all in communities unable to understand their needs. The titular Biblical reference works: whether by design or pure coincidence, each of these characters finds him/herself incapable of communicating with the very people who can save them. It’s a compelling setup, and it ought to make a great movie. But Babel is not a clean bull’s-eye. Not all four of these stories are created equal. The stories set in Morocco run more like a thriller – will she live? Can they survive in this hostile environment? Will the boys get away with their accidental crime? – than a story about cross-cultural misunderstanding. Only the Japan and Mexico stories actually move us, and Amelia’s story, after going through a fair amount of indulgent wedding-celebration footage, feels like it belongs in a movie about illegal immigration instead. With just one good story, Babel could have been half as long and twice as powerful. Instead, you walk away overwhelmed by all the diverse sights and sounds Iñárritu has thrown on you in an attempt to be “universal.” No need for big when small can say just as much.
The sad part is that the small story Iñárritu needs is already right in front of him. With the story of Chieko, we have someone quite literally unable to communicate with the world around her. Iñárritu elegantly leads us through a series of scenes at a nightclub to show the disconnect between our reality and Chieko’s noiseless one, a bubble of silence in a place bursting to the brim with sound and energy. It’s a mark of the potential of this movie that Chieko, who at first shocks and disgusts us with her drastic attempts to get attention, becomes the character we sympathize with the most at the end. Everybody has a struggle that you don’t know about, and in Chieko’s case, there’s not even anybody she can talk to about it. Her story is the essence of what Iñárritu wants Babel to be about, and it’s a pity he decided to run away from it with his grand scheme to get bigger and emptier.
Overall, Babel does a fairly good job of relaying its central theme, but Iñárritu has foolishly diluted his base material in an attempt to be profound. This could’ve, would’ve, should’ve been a masterpiece. Instead, we’re left with all the parts of a great film, but not the sum: disjointed segments of a resonant story, a few strong performances (particularly by Barraza and Kikuchi), a minimalistic but effective score, fairly good cinematography, and a director who didn’t realize what he had until he wasted it. What a shame.
Country: Mexico/United States/France
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi
Running Time: 143 minutes
Produced by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Jon Kilik, Steve Golin
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga