A powerful but graphic, confounding, “Babel”
As its title implies, “Babel” is about breakdowns in human communication. Gifted director Alejandro Gonzalez I?arritu as in his other critically praised films (Amores Perros,” “21 Grams”) weaves a puzzle of multiple stories which are connected, in this case by a hunting rifle.
A Moroccan goat herder (Mustapha Rachidi) received the rifle as a gift from a Japanese hunter (Koji Yakusho) whom he helped as a tour guide. As boys will do with a new toy, the herdsman’s young sons fool around taking a pot shot at a tourist bus and severely wounding an American tourist (Cate Blanchett). She and her husband (Brad Pitt) are traveling in this desolate region to work out problems in their marriage which were exacerbated by the death of one of their children.
The other two children are back home in San Diego being tended by a gentle Mexican housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) who’s practically raised the kids from birth. Unable to find someone to watch the kids, she takes them with her to her son’s wedding south of the border along with her likable but ne’er-do well nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal). Back in Tokyo, the hunter’s deaf-mute teenage daughter (Rinko Kikuchi) struggles with her self image, especially in lieu of her mother’s recent suicide.
It says a lot about Inarritu’s skill that such plot points are much easier to understand while watching them unfold than to explain-his effective use of gritty textures and intricate framing work to concisely bridge the transglobal settings. Terrific acting gives each character a warmth despite their dire circumstances.
Surely some will find the menacing despair of the different stories compelling and moving-already the film has received accolades from Cannes, the Golden Globes and an Oscar nomination for “Best Picture.” But in comparison to the very similarly structured films “Traffic” and “Crash,” “Babel” feels lightweight and less affecting. Consider that the underlying point of all this pathos pulling seems to be a fusion of Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong…) and The Butterfly effect (a seemingly insignificant choice here, creates sheer havoc miles away). But do we really learn anything?
The film is, as to be expected, relentlessly glum in its convictions but not without heart. Unfortunately as is common among edgy, indie-minded films these days it also takes unnecessary license to shock. Scenes involving Kikuchi, some involving full nudity, border on exploitative and trivialize the character’s well-earned compassion by the audience.
There are moments of real power and beauty in “Babel” and I?arritu along with writer Guillermo Arriaga are a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps the term “less is more” got lost somewhere in translation.
Rated R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use.