Babel (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Babel represents director Alejando Gonzalez Iñárritu's conclusion to a stylistic and thematic trilogy begun in Amores Perros and continued in 21 Grams. Of the three, Babel is arguably the most accessible. As with 21 Grams (and to a lesser degree Amores Perros), this movie is constructed as a puzzle, with different pieces transpiring during different times and in different places over a five-day span. However, this one is less complicated to put together. (Think of it as the difference between assembling a 250-piece jigsaw and a 50-piece one.) The temporaral discontinuities are not extreme, and there is clear background evidence of how each sequence relates to those around it and fits into the global time-line. This allows story to take precedence over structure.

It's a compelling tale, one that delineates how small mistakes and lapses in judgment can have tragic consequences. It also illustrates how poorly we communicate in an ever shrinking world. In addition to those umbrella themes, the movie also has "smaller" messages for its individual segments. There are four of these. The first involves two children in a mountain village in Morocco. Their father has bought a gun to use to shoot predators hunting his sheep. One son, testing the range of the rife, fires a round at a tourist bus. The second segment features Americans Susan (Cate Blanchett) and Richard (Brad Pitt), who are on vacation in Morocco. She is shot and badly injured by the bullet fired by the boys, and her fight for life turns into an international incident with terrorist overtones. The third segment focuses on Susan and Richard's two children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble), who are under the care of an illegal immigrant, Amelia (Adriana Barraza). When their parents can't make it home on time, Amelia and her nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) are forced to bring the children across the border into Mexico so she can attend her son's wedding. When the border patrol becomes suspicious of them on their return journey, there are consequences. Finally, in faraway Japan, deaf-mute teenager Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is trying to cope in a world that offers little in the way of affection. Her mother committed suicide and her father (Kôji Yakusho) is a cold, distant figure. In an attempt to capture a little emotional warmth, she engages in a series of increasingly risky sexual escapades. How this storyline connects with the others is left for the second half of the movie to reveal, although I can say it's nothing shocking or sensationalistic.

One of the great strengths of Babel is Iñárritu's ability to cope with issues of global importance while still presenting vivid characters whose individual problems are no less vital and compelling. There are no villains here. Crimes are committed, but none are intentional. Small errors snowball to have unintended and unimaginable consequences. One man's decision to buy a gun to protect his flock leads to two small white children being stranded alone in the Southern California desert. This is only one of many strands that is woven into Babel's web. It brings to mind the so-called "Butterfly Effect." (A nimble attempt to provide an encapsulated explanation of Chaos Theory, the "Butterfly Effect" states that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in Africa can indirectly cause a tornado to appear half a world away.)

Perhaps the most poignant and personal story is that of Chieko. By occasionally showing her perspective (with an eerily silent soundtrack) and juxtaposing it with the strobe lights and thumping dance music of Tokyo's night scene, Iñárritu builds her segments into something deeply affecting. As good as all the performers are - and they include the likes of Brad Pitt, Cate Blachett, and Gael García Bernal - young Rinko Kikuchi steals the spotlight. Her work is heartbreaking and haunting. As much as we feel for the other characters in Babel and the tragedies that fate brings into their lives, Chieko is the one we want to cry for.

Babel is a masterwork from a director whose each effort re-enforces his international reputation. This movie is as mature and potent a piece of cinema as 21 Grams, and a worthy conclusion to Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's "trilogy." This is cathartic, thought-provoking, emotionally solid movie-making. It's the kind of cinema I hope to see whenever I sit down in a theater to view a drama. Whether viewed amidst a flood of pictures in the middle of a film festival or on its own in a local multiplex, Babel stands out from the crowd. Its complex (yet not mystifying) storytelling, forceful character development, and superb cinematography make this a candidate for one of 2006's best offerings.

Babel (United States, 2006)

Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2006
Run Time: 2:22
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: Some English subtitled French, Spanish, Japanese,
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1