Babel
A film by Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu
screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga


The new film from Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, from a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga, is a powerful experience, even harrowing at times, as an exploration of the cultural gulfs that continue to exist in an increasingly "globalized" world. Innaritu takes this - and the metaphor for the gulfs between individuals within relationships which it mirrors - as the subject for this meditation on life in the early 21st Century.

The problem of "making ourselves understood" to one another becomes increasingly critical in a world whose boundaries are becoming more indistinct and whose populations and cultures are intermingling to a degree unthinkable even a decade or two ago. Innaritu chooses to explore this difficulty through three distinct but connected stories of people trying to communicate as if their lives depended on it - which in this allegory, they do.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are a wealthy American couple, vacationing off-the-beaten-track (but by air-conditioned, luxury motor-coach) in North Africa. In a freak accident, two young local boys playing with a rifle fire on the bus, grievously wounding Blanchett. In the middle of nowhere, in a country where expectations, infrastructure and the whole attitude to life and death are as incomprehensible as the foreign language he does not speak, Pitt struggles with trying to save the life of the woman he loves.

Back in Southern California, Blanchett's and Pitt's Mexican-born nanny, caring for their two small children, is frustrated by her employers' sudden change of plans, that requires that she stay on with them and miss the wedding of her eldest son, still in Mexico, for which she had been planning. She bends the rules, harmlessly as she thinks, to allow her to participate in the joyous family event, but the results prove disastrous beyond her wildest imagining.

And in the third story, it turns out that the gun with which the two boys were playing was a gift to a North African hunting-guide from a Japanese client, a wealthy, self-absorbed businessman who is trying to raise his daughter single-handedly after the suicide of his wife. His daughter is deaf and communicates by sign language, a member of a deaf sub-culture that brands her as an outsider even in her own homeland.

All these stories revolve around failures of communication, prompting the film's tagline, "If you want to be heard...listen." It is the difficulty both of making oneself heard and of finding the time and silence in which to listen that concerns Innaritu here. And rather than proposing any specific, simplistic solution, he is content to point out what a monumental task we are up against, to show the degree of determination, dedication and good will required to bridge the gaps between us, and to perhaps inspire us to consider how these questions impinge on our own lives.

In his now familiar style - he is the director of Amores Perros and 21 Grams - Innaritu develops his narrative in overlapping time-frames, jumping from one story to another, back and forth in time, to develop an additional overlay of meaning in the way that "unrelated" events, like the Japanese businessman's hunting trip, or the nanny's son's wedding have unexpected and sometimes enormous consequences that suddenly create connections where none had been imagined or foreseen.

This idea that "everything is connected to everything else" - a sort of universal corollary to Donne's profound recognition that "no man is an island" - is a second theme here, underscoring the reasons why the need of communication and the understanding it can promote is so essential to our lives. In this complex interweaving of stories, Innaritu demonstrates that lives hang in the balance.

The script is very well-crafted. With dialogue in several languages (including sign-language) and the difficulties of subtitling, Innaritu and his screenwriter keep it to a minimum, giving the actors plenty of room to communicate non-verbally and using images and editing to tell the story and keep it moving. The exchanges between many of the characters effectively capture the artificial tone of people laboring to communicate in an unfamiliar tongue.

This tone runs throughout the film, and is set in one instance in the opening scene between Blanchett and Pitt, whose relationship is in deep trouble and whose attempts to exchange information about their needs and feelings are as painful and stilted if they were trying to translate their experience into a language in which neither of them is fluent.

The stories themselves are very dramatic - stories of people who unexpectedly find themselves on the edge of life-and-death situations through no real fault of their own - and although he plays them for their suspenseful qualities, Innaritu keeps the focus on the effects the experience has in the lives of each individual, rather than on the mere unfolding of events, and so avoids the trap of melodrama.

He is supported by an excellent cast. Pitt, whose work has been all over the map, shows here the acting abilities that have distinguished his career in spite of a number of mediocre choices of material in the past. He is convincing and compelling, his desperation and frustration at his own helplessness, trapped in a culture his accustomed tools cannot affect, tangible.

Blanchett once again shows the range that has distinguished her work, playing a somewhat spoiled, disenchanted daughter of privilege whose "life of quiet desperation" is suddenly projected into a new dimension by a chance occurrence. She neatly establish her character in a few brief scenes, and then lets that inform the disintegration that ensues as she becomes a desperate, wounded animal, focused only on her own survival.

None of the rest of the cast (except perhaps Gael Garcia Bernal, who has a modest supporting role) are "stars" on the level of Blanchett and Pitt, but they acquit themselves with great authenticity. It is strongly to Innaritu's credit that he gets such powerful performances out of relatively inexperienced and in some cases non-professional actors - especially the children who play such pivotal roles.

Adrianna Barrazza plays the nanny Amelia. She has extensive screen credits in Mexican cinema, but is little know here. This film, however, showcases her skill, playing what is in many ways the most tragic of the characters with a degree of conviction and energy that makes her character's predicament come painfully alive.

Rinko Kikuchi gives a carefully-balanced and utterly fearless performance as the Japanese businessman's deaf daughter, Cheiko. She embodies her character's painful isolation and desperate vulnerability in a way that is both sympathetic and a bit frightening.

This is a complicated production, filming on numerous locations on two continents hundreds and even thousands of miles apart, but Innaritu and his crew manage to weave the stories together in a way that makes the jumps a natural part of the rhythm of the story-telling.

There is a coherence in the camera work, supervised by Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto, a regular Innaritu collaborator. A lot of it is "hand-held" or shot from a steadicam, that gives much of the action a strong, almost documentary sense of immediacy, and that and other similarities of visual "approach," help tie the separate stories together with a unity of "style."

The music is mix of cultural references, used to identify and underscore the changes of location and to create a "dialogue" on yet another level - the pop-cultural - between the different societies depicted.

It is something of a tour-de-force performance (as it was in his earlier films) to tell three distinct stories compellingly and in such detail, to be able to give such a strong impression of such clearly individual characters in the limited screen-time allowed for each. But once again, Innaritu pulls it off - and not merely accomplishes it, but does it with a level of skill that makes this film - like his earlier efforts - a high-water-mark of the director's craft.

Babel is a first-class film, philosophical, thoughtful and provocative, in a year that has given audiences few works of this kind of quality. It is not an easy film to watch, and is certainly not "mass entertainment" by any stretch of the imagination. But it is a powerful, well-made, insightful piece of work, one adult audiences will find a welcome relief from the pap and pablum that has made up most of this year's movie-menu.

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?