BABEL, from director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga in 2006, is a crushing multi-narrative drama, the final segment of their intense and tasking “Death Trilogy”, following Amores Perros and 21 Grams.
Filmed on locations in Morocco (Taguenzalt, Casablanca and Ouarzazate), Mexico (Baja California, Tijuana, Sonora), Tokyo and San Diego, the unremittingly harsh intersection of circumstance and consequence drew critical praise and was feted on the awards circuit. An Oscar winner for Gustavo Santaoalla‘s music scoring, it also pulled down nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actresses (Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi) and Film Editing.
Clocking out at 143 minutes, with a production tab of around $25,000,000, it ranked a solid hit, 37th place for the year, grossing $135,330,000. Of that total 75% accrued outside the US market, and then it went on to log at least another $31,421,000 in DVD sales.
A Moroccan goatherd (Mustapha Rachidi) buys a hunting rifle to use on jackals that prey on his flock. His young sons (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) are entrusted with the weapon, but they foolishly test its range by taking a pot shot at a distant tour bus. The lucky/unlucky round seriously wounds the wife of an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett). Their two children are back in California, under the care of a loving Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) who makes the mistake of taking the kids across the border with her, so she can attend her elder son’s wedding. Her fateful error is in using her reckless nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) as their driver. His already careless attitude is amplified by alcohol. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi) rashly acts out after the apparent suicide of her mother, and her father’s link with the rifle is eventually revealed.
Like the previous year’s Crash, and the earlier Iñárritu-Arriaga bruiser Amores Perros, this is a compelling weave of several plotlines and groups of characters into a cause & effect matrix, though its global span is more ambitious and audacious.
Lengthy but fast-paced, photographed, edited and scored to heighten immediacy and raise tension stakes, it’s marked by first-rate ensemble work from a large cast. Pitt and Blanchett are fine, as ever, though their roles are constructed more in service of plot than characterization—you could replace them here with Matt Damon & Naomi Watts or Sean Penn & Charlize Theron and have demonstrably the same effect. Greater impact registers through immersions into anguish from the key supporting players: Barraza’s frantic nanny, deserted in the desert; Kikuchi’s challenging nymphet, crucially solo in a megalopolis; Rachidi’s overwhelmed peasant father, trapped in a net of mortification and state reaction.
Scene-by-scene it works, piling on palpable dread in a kinetic visual straight-jacket so that you’re as drained by the end as the defeated, despairing people on screen. Mimicking its own butterfly-effect, a feedback loop of re-evaluation follows hard on the heels of initial viewing: realizing the director and writer have stacked the deck from here to Marrakech. One can appreciate the directorial skill, technical details and those arresting actors and still, as “Time Out” critic Dave Calhoun observed “If misery is your pornography, Babel is your holy grail.”
It’s not enough that innocent tourist Blanchett is shot, then stitched up like a gaffed camel, in the middle of nowhere, but she and Pitt are on the trip to try and heal marital wounds brought on by the death of a child. Not sufficient that Kikuchi’s defiant teenager flaunts herself sexually to every guy she encounters, but she’s deaf, and as such, ignored and shut-out by the madcap whirl around her. And so on…
Bet that if Iñárritu offered a similar schematic of butterfly wing-flaps that saw separate actions and events provoking unforeseen kindness, love and glee around the globe, he’d be accused of being trite, shallow, manipulative (or imagine if it was shot-for-shot exactly the same except the director credit said ‘Ron Howard’ or ‘Steven Spielberg’?). But when you flip that hopefulness into tragedy and what we’re meant to see is searing, respected, meaningful Art, then critics short out their keyboards with tears of praise over the honesty, the truth…
Whatever. It’s a gripping film, but one wishes the director (he and screenwriter Arriaga famously parted ways over credit) would show something that dares spotlight the other side of the human condition, the part that smiles and sighs.
Also doing faultless work in the cast are Yuko Murata, Koji Yakusho, Peter Wight, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Peña, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble, Satoshi Nikaido and Emelio Echevarría.