If you saw 21 Grams, then you know how frustrating it was to wait three years for the release of acclaimed director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s next project. It’s out now, and actually, I don’t feel any better. Babel itself is an exercise in frustration, emotionally and idiomatically. Once the previews finish and the reel starts rolling, you will sit in your seat and you will get angry, you will get depressed, and, brace yourself, you might even start to think. I don’t know about you, but I find thinking to be
an exceptionally frustrating activity.
Nonetheless, when Mexican director Iñárritu teams up with compatriot and bilingual screenwriter extraordinaire Guillermo Arriaga, it tends to make for cinematic alchemy. As foreigners with the ability to surmount their own language barriers, the duo always brings a unique perspective to the screen, but they also write scripts that can adapt to any language’s colloquialisms with ease. Their films never seem foreign, except perhaps in that they’re original. In Babel, they decide to tackle the notion of the language barrier itself, and the end product is rife with their trademark time shifts. On the surface, it appears to be the lovechild of Lost in Translation and Crash — an account of one incident whose global repercussions prove that understanding is the concept most foreign to human beings.
The movie begins with two Moroccan boys shooting at passing cars, attempting to prove that their father’s new rifle can reach three miles away. Susan (Cate Blanchett), one half of a feuding American tourist couple, finds herself on the business end of the bullet’s path. Richard (Brad Pitt) is left desperately trying to save his estranged wife’s life with almost zero modes of communication with the Moroccan villagers, and what’s more, the U.S. government hastily deems the shooting a terrorist attack. Thus, the world begins to pay attention, but the Americans seem all the more urgently isolated with each passing minute in their English-speaking enclave of the rural Moroccan culture.
The modern day interpretation of the Old Testament’s Tower of Babel fable includes plotlines in Arabic, English, Japanese, Japanese sign language, Spanish, and even sub-dialects like American bureaucratic Newspeak, fiesta-induced slurred Spanish and lies in your pick of languages. Breaking it down, there are four stories in four countries woven together that relate to the shooting and its worldwide implications. We not only see the perspective of Blanchett and Pitt, but also that of their children and nanny left behind in San Diego en route to Mexico, that of the Moroccan children, and also that of a deaf-mute oversexed Japanese girl, who for a while doesn’t clearly fit in with the other intertwined narratives. Certain characters are able to circumvent language barriers to emerge from the fiasco relatively unscathed, while others’ lives are left in shambles.
This movie is not for the faint of heart. Though the gore is gracefully minimal compared to what it could have been with this subject matter, the suspense is copious throughout. And where the movie really goes for the jugular is with its various moments that take your heart and stomp all over it. When Richard talks to his son on the phone, not sure if his mother will ever have the opportunity to do so again, Pitt shows more acting chops than most knew were in him. However, even though Pitt, Blanchett and Mexican heavyweight Gael García Bernal step up as always, in my opinion, the best performance of the whole film comes from Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), one of the Moroccan boys.
Babel will frustrate you — that’s a given — and it will make you think. But in the end, your overall thoughts about the movie could go in various directions. The acting is good and so is the idea, but in execution, it lacks a certain je ne sais quois. I’m guessing the movie may not stand the test of time as well as the book on which it is based, but Babel is still a valiant effort.