The would-be Oscar contender Babel weaves four interconnected stories taking place at three different points on the globe. In Morocco, a goat herder gives his sons a newly acquired rifle to shoot jackals, while an American tourist couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) is traveling by bus down a dusty, rural road when a bullet pierces the window and wounds the woman. Back in San Diego, the couple's children are taken by their Mexican nanny, an illegal immigrant, across the border to Tijuana to attend her son's wedding. And in Japan, a deaf-mute teenager -- the daughter of the man whose gun was used in the shooting -- struggles with the lingering wounds of her mother's suicide.
Babel was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose 2000 Mexican debut, Amores Perros, was a similarly twisty blend of interrelated stories and whose follow-up, the Memphis-shot 21 Grams, was temporally disjointed to the point of impenetrability.
As the title indicates, Babel's primary subject is miscommunication across cultures, but fitting its epic ambition (and, at 142 minutes, epic length), it touches on any number of globalization issues: immigration, terrorism, class disparities, the prominence of American media and its concern with blond, white women in peril.
There's a critique of American arrogance and solipsism running through Babel: After Blanchett's character is shot, her rescue is complicated by poor communication between the American and Moroccan governments. The U.S. State Department won't let her be picked up by a Moroccan ambulance because the Moroccan government won't acknowledge the shooting as an act of terrorism, even though it isn't at all clear that's what it is. This forces her to wait for the arrival of a U.S. military helicopter in a dusty hut, her wounds being stitched by a village veterinarian. Days later, a world away, the same woman's daughter sits in a car gazing out the window at Tijuana, telling her nanny, "My mom told me Mexico is really dangerous." "Yes," says the nanny's nephew, played by Gael García Bernal, "it's full of Mexicans."
But Babel also seeks to acknowledge things that link people across cultures, finding common themes among its many stories with unexpected subtlety: parent-child relationships, drug use, familial loss.
Babel has been compared to last year's surprise Oscar winner, Crash, which also weaved multiple characters around a big-picture look at How We Live Now. But Babel is not as facile. It's less of a tract and, as a result, less likely to take home a gold statue.
It's also less likely to thrill more-discerning filmgoers. There's one sequence where the deaf-mute Tokyo teen gets high on pills and whisky in a public park. She and her friends play in the fountains, ramble through the city streets, and ultimately enter a disco to throbbing music, the sound bobbing in and out as the film oscillates between her perspective and that of the world she inhabits. This is a good scene but not a rapturous one. It's easy to sense how you could be swept away in the hands of a more dynamic filmmaker, a Wong Kar-Wai, a P.T. Anderson, or a Quentin Tarantino. In Iñárritu's hands, the scene underachieves before finally landing with a thud in a distracting blur of strobe light.
Babel's reach exceeds its grasp. It makes much better use of similarly complicated thematic and visual material than 21 Grams did, but, like that underachiever, it's not as significant as it wants to be.
Opening Friday, November 10th