The Bible gives us the story of the tower of Babel, the magnificently tall structure whose height was deemed offensive and impertinent by God. To punish humanity for its architectural hubris, God then decided to drive a linguistic wedge between the nations of the world, who until then had spoken the same tongue. As fables go, this is a particularly effective one in that it both illustrates a moral — don’t think you’re better than God or you shall be struck down with all speed — and also provides a handy answer to those who wondered why there are so many different languages anyway.
In Babel, directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Amores Perros), a clutch of characters from a range of cultures and walks of life attempt to build a towering film of meaning from coincidence and portent; unfortunately, in the end it is the viewer who is punished for the filmmaker’s hubris.
What is one even supposed to make of this film, where so many stories and moments seem to strain for larger import but end up only as fractured shards of disconnected drama? It is, after all, a film whose director had the good sense to cast Cate Blanchett, but the inexcusably bad taste to then give her a role in which she’s required to spend the bulk of her screen-time unconscious or barely coherent. (It’s sort of like getting Anthony Hopkins for your movie and then killing him off in the first 30 seconds.)
Blanchett plays Susan, a rich California tourist roaming around Morocco with her husband Richard (a pleasantly grizzled Brad Pitt). As their bus wends its way through the mountains, a pair of young shepherds are roaming above, testing a new rifle’s accuracy with the abandon of immature brothers. The tragedy of unintended consequences: in a scene that’s heartstopping for its matter-of-factness, a bullet smacks through the bus window, seriously wounding the sleeping Susan.
This accident ripples out through Babel‘s ramshackle quartet of stories, serving as a loose and mostly ineffective linking device that becomes more strained the further the film goes. Richard struggles to find medical care in the remote region for the dying Susan. The shepherd boys are terrified to discover that the shooting has been classified as a terrorist attack by an overeager American embassy, and cops are fanning out through the mountains. Back in America, Richard and Susan’s maid, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), desperate to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico, even though Richard won’t give her time off, ends up taking the two blonde children in her charge (a shy pair played by Nathan Gamble and Dakota Fanning’s younger sister Elle) to the wedding in a car driven by her erratic nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal). And in the film’s most needless addition, set in Tokyo, deaf-mute teenage girl Chieko (the disarming Rinko Kikuchi), indulges in risky, rebellious acting-out while the police keep coming around asking where her father is.
Given the film’s title, language and cultural barriers make up most of its dramatic frisson, with unfortunate misunderstandings providing plenty of weighty tragedy. With all these stories happening more or less simultaneously (the timeline jumps back and forth, for no apparent reason), Iñárritu has a lot of balls to juggle; unfortunately he doesn’t seem to mind letting them fall. The editing has a jarring tendency to cut away from one story just as dramatic tension has begun to build, and so the film piles on incident after incident with little cohesive structure, turning to interminable mush not long after the midway point. Inarritu is more skilled than this — there are some wonderfully observed moments with the shepherds, and the Mexico wedding is just sheer exuberant delight. But these are exceptions, easily outweighed by the aimless drift of most of the film, especially the Tokyo sequence, which is awash in creepy voyeurism and drags on forever before finally clueing us in to how it’s connected to the shooting.
Babel has the material of greatness — vast scope, humane vision, fine actors — but sadly not the ability to make it all into something beyond mildly pretty and pretentious blather. In striving to recreate the chaotic din of a God-cursed global humanity, it succeeds only in making noise.
A new special edition DVD includes a feature-length making-of documentary on a second disc.
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