An American woman is accidentally shot in the desert of Morocco by two native boys. Her husband must find her immediate care before she bleeds to the death. The couple’s children are home in San Diego under the care of a Mexican nanny, who winds up taking them to Mexico for a wedding. The gun’s owner lives in Japan and has a deaf-mute daughter who will do anything to get someone to look past her handicap. These are the interlocking stories that merge in director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, easily one of the year’s finest and thought-provoking films.
Iñárritu has never been one for subtlety, and Babel is no exception. We, the audience, are put through the emotional ringer as each of the characters make decisions (sometimes absurd, until they are put into context) that alter their lives greatly. Much like last year’s Oscar darling, Crash, Iñárritu’s opus demands we place ourselves in the situation at hand and become involved with every character. How much you enjoy Babel will be based entirely on your degree of cynicism.
As the experience unfolded, I found myself enthralled with every detail of Babel. The core and sparking point of the story, which is the shooting of Susan (Blanchett), is excruciating in and of itself. We have all been in places where we have been at the mercy of the locals, and the ordeal of Susan and Richard (Pitt) sets the foundation from the outset. The parallel story involving the couple’s children and their nanny, Amelia (Barraza), is equally compelling, as Amelia unwisely takes the kids to Mexico for a wild wedding. Cue the parental instincts. On the other side of the world, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga focuses in on the owner of the gun (Koji Yakusho) involved in the crime and his deeply troubled deaf-mute daughter (Rinko Kikuchi).
Iñárritu’s gift lies in pacing, an aspect of film making that has really gone by the wayside in recent years. He shows admirable restraint in giving each of the stories its own dimensions and memorable sequence. He always finds new ways to creep up on you, even when you think everything is finally okay, and broadside you with a new revelation. This is what keeps Babel chugging along, and it’s executed to perfection.
The performances by the ensemble cast are astounding – each in their own way. The top-billed Brad Pitt gives one of the most paramount performances of his career as the emotionally spent Richard. He effortlessly goes from confident married man to helpless bystander with the snap of a trigger. Also making a big impression is Gael Garcia Bernal as Santiago, the drunken relative of Amelia who gets them all in a world of trouble with border police. Garnering heartfelt compassion is Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko, the deaf-mute girl who is desperate for male attention. Kikuchi’s performance is a gem of facial articulation and restrained emotion. Stealing the show, however, is Adriana Barraza as Amelia. Her final sequence with a border patrol officer is the most heartbreaking scene I have witnessed this year. Barraza is unequivocally worthy of an Oscar nomination. Also inescapable and deserving of an Oscar nomination is the jaw-dropping cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who gave Brokeback Mountain its memorable visual canvas.
The final minutes of Babel fail to offer many answers, but they do leave sentiments that will have the viewer thinking for days. Like Crash, it will undoubtedly polarize viewers. You’ll either feel like you’re being pounded over the head with the melodramatic sledgehammer or you become engulfed in the story lines unfolding. I don’t think Iñárritu would have it any other way.
Studio: Paramount Vantage
Length: 142 Minutes
Rating: R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use.
Theatrical Release: May 23, 2006 (Cannes Film Festival) / September 1, 2006 (Telluride Film Festival) / September 9, 2006 (Toronto Film Festival) / October 27, 2006 (NY/LA) / November 10, 2006
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga. Idea by Arriaga & Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Elle Fanning, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza