Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rinko Kukuchi
Running Time: 142 min.
**** (out of ****)
When you stop to think about it, there's nothing more dangerous than being stuck in a country where you don't know the language or the culture. Babel knows this and milks the idea for everything its worth. Then it goes deeper than that to make a larger point about how we communicate, or rather don't, in today's world.
What happens is scary, but it's a different kind of scary than we're used to seeing in movies. The thrills and shocks come from the amazing stupidity and carelessness of the characters and the communication breakdown that permeates through the entire picture. The characters in this movie make bad mistakes and horrible judgement calls but they're realistic and not any I couldn't see someone making. I'm not sure what that says about the world we live in and to be honest I'm not sure if I really want to know. All the matters is that Babel had me thinking ...for a long time.
Within the first few minutes of the film we're already given the frightening image of two young Moroccan boys (one of which has a filthy habit of spying on his naked sister) playing with a rifle given to them by their father, a local herdsman. One takes a shot and hits a local tour bus carrying bickering married couple Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett). They're on vacation against Susan's wishes and one of the most interesting scenes involves them sitting at a Moroccan restaurant and having one of the coldest conversations I've ever seen a married couple have in a film. It's not so much what they say, but what they don't that makes such an impact.
Susan is hit with the bullet and is fighting for her life when Richard brings her to a nearby Moroccan village to stop the bleeding and wait for a helicopter to get her to a hospital. Meanwhile news reports cite that Susan was the victim of a terrorist attack, when in actuality it was just a couple of dumb kids playing around. In a way that's far worse, and the movie does a good job conveying that and making us almost wish it was a terrorist attack. At least that would be something we could wrap our minds around. Richard calls home to his Mexican housekeeper Amelia (Oscar nominee Adriana Barazza), who's looking after their two kids, tells her what happened, and says she needs to watch over them a little longer until he gets back. This is a problem. Amelia needs to be in Mexico for her son's wedding and has no idea what to do with the kids. It's at this point that she makes a stupid decision. A really, really stupid decision.
She hitches a ride over the border to the wedding with her livewire nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) and bring the kids. What happens to them, or should I say what they cause themselves, is horrifying, made that much moreso by the fact it was completely preventable. The final and most effective link in this storyline arc is in Japan where deaf mute teenager Chieko (Oscar nominee Rinko Kukuchi in a heartbreaking performance) who lost her mother to suicide and has serious problems communicating with her father, uses her body as a desperate cry for attention when she thinks the whole world views her as a monster. How this relates to the other stories is more indirect but made clear later.
This movie has often been compared to the 2005 Best Picture winner Crash with its cross-cutting narrative structure and themes of culture clash. From the day it was released in theaters Babel has caused unprecedented arguments among critics and audiences. That it's caused such heated debate can only be seen as a compliment to writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams) and the story he crafted. I think a lot of people have major problems with the film because the characters aren't easily accessible or likable due to their incredibly poor decision making and ignorance.
They also may have thought the script took some liberties in portraying them and didn't effectively convey its intended message of miscommunication among other cultures of people. I thought it rarely stepped wrong and achieved a remarkable feat in telling four almost equally effective stories that never lost sight of the central theme of the film and contained some remarkable performances. Given the scope of what Inarritu chose to take on here there were a million different ways this could have gone wrong, but it doesn't.
The two most controversial storylines involve the Mexican housekeeper's ridiculous decision to take the kids over the border and the deaf Japanese teenager's cry for help that manifests itself sexually. Watching it I'm sure a lot of viewers thought no human being could possibly do something as stupid as what housekeeper Amelia does with those kids. Well, in real life nannies do insanely stupid things that put the welfare of the children they look after in danger. I've seen it.
As for what happens when they arrive at the wedding, I think Inarritu wasn't trying to portray Mexicans in a bad light as has been accused but rather show the events from the vantage point of two terrified children who have just stepped into a world that they, like us, have no clue about. Inarritu was making a point about how we view those from other cultures which is why the depiction seems on first glance to be so offensive and over the top. Another misunderstanding in a film full of them.
Although it seems like the storyline least related to everything else in the film Rinko Kukuchi's Chieko is the glue that holds the movie together and provides much of its emotional power. Of all the characters in the film, she's the one you feel the most sympathy for. She's uses her body because it's her last resort after being ignored and ostracized. In her mind, she has no other choice and she comes to this realization in the infamous restaurant scene. For people who complain there's too much gratuitous nudity in films they may be happy to know this film isn't an offender. When an actress is asked to expose herself physically and emotionally like Kukuchi does here it better be for good reason. Inarritu knows this and takes good care of her. What I liked most about this story is that the other characters know she's vulnerable, yet all refuse to take advantage of her.
In a spectacular scene we're taken into a Japanese dance club and for a couple of moments the music stops and we hear what Chieko would hear: nothing. Lights blaring, people moving but no sound. We're deaf and it's terrifying. In a film loaded with uncomfortable moments this one really stands out. So does the performance of Kukuchi, who if there's any justice will win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Believe it or not, I think of all the characters Brad Pitt's Richard was the one who acted the most sensibly given the circumstances. If you look back you'll see given how quickly everything happens and the massive sense of dislocation he must have been feeling he did all he could and handled the situation well. I also think in the minimal amount of screen time he had Pitt managed to deliver the best performance of his career thus far. Although I have to admit it was kind of distracting and unnecessary to age Pitt by giving him graying hair when we all know he's old enough to have two kids that age anyway. It seemed like they wanted to let us know he was giving a really serious, mature performance in case we didn't get the memo.
The way his relationship with his wife changes throughout the course the film is a sight to behold and all comes to fruition in one really powerful scene where Blanchett's Susan lets go of her anger and opens herself up to be helped. Blanchett spends most of the film on the floor bleeding to death, but she somehow even manages to even do that elegantly while continuing to prove her worth as one of the best working actresses today.
With its sweeping cinematography, tackling of cultural themes and globe spanning storylines this is the kind of epic that has Best Picture written all over it. As for the ending, it wasn't the storyline or image I would have picked to close on, but that's a minor issue considering some of the other disastrously inappropriate endings we've seen this past year. The idea behind the picture is one that should be explored more often in modern cinema because it's so relevant. A tiny event halfway across the world can carry ripple effects that impact others in ways that may seem impossible on paper. It has happened and continues to everyday. Misunderstandings and communication breakdowns can cause a bad situations to escalate into worse ones. No matter what your reaction to Babel is, you're at least forced to admit you had one.