It's ironic, given that this is a film about the difficulties of making yourself understood and those forces that keep people apart, but over the past couple of months (ever since seeing the film at the Toronto Film Festival in September) I've had more arguments about Babel than anything else. And not just about the correct pronunciation of the title. (I say 'Baybel'; they say 'Babble' or 'Ba-belle'.)
In the US, it's probably popped up on more critic's best and worst lists than any other this year. The editor of Cinema-Scope dubbed it 'a crime against humanity'. Many are calling the film this year's Crash - which splintered opinion in much the same way. This disharmony has even infected the filmmakers: after three films together, writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have fallen out, and won't be collaborating in the foreseeable future.
Like Crash, and like their two previous efforts, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Babel is an intense drama shifting between several sets of characters from very different backgrounds. While you could point to isolated examples of this kind of structure from cinema's past, it's really exploded over the last ten or fifteen years, through the impact of films like Short Cuts, Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Traffic, Syriana and Code: Unknown. This time, though, the scale is stretched right across the globe.
In North Africa, a tour bus comes under fire from what the passengers assume must be terrorists. In fact the culprits are two young boys getting the range of their father's new rifle.
This mischief has dire consequences. Susan (Cate Blanchett) is wounded, potentially fatally, and with no hospital for hundreds of miles the bus is diverted to the nearest village where her husband, Richard (Brad Pitt) desperately tries to secure medical attention.
Back home, the American couple's two young kids are also on a journey, south of the border to celebrate their nanny's daughter's wedding. The party is raucous and ebullient. It's only when a nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) insists he's sober enough to drive them back that the trouble starts.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, deaf-mute teenager, Chieko (Kikuchi Rinko) is going crazy with loneliness. Over the course of a day and a night she reaches out to several men and boys for intimacy, including a police inspector who wants to interview her father, but each time her clumsy sexual advances are rebuffed.
The links between these scenarios are contrived and in any event highly tenuous. The shooting incident echoes the inciting event in Arriaga's script The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and the Tokyo story was reportedly added to the mix at Inarritu's insistence, because he had a yen to explore Tokyo. What upsets some people is the implication that put together, these stories are supposed to add up to an all-encompassing statement about the modern world. That and the realisation that Babel is determined to show you a bad time.
I share these reservations. Its fatalism does seem forced, and its pretensions suspect. Yet Inarritu is a tremendously talented filmmaker: even if you're unwilling to go on these journeys, he drags you there. Each section has a vivid sense of place, and the characters feel true - I've don't think I've ever seen a more acute expression of isolation in a crowd than a virtuoso sequence when a stoned Chieko enters a thudding Tokyo discotheque. But such powerful atmospherics - and a certain prurience - can only camouflage the flimsiest of Arriaga's stories.
The Pitt/Blanchett strand is the strongest, and redeems the film for me: it's nothing if not relevant in the way it tears away the safety net protecting western tourists from their terrors of the third world. Some people have suggested the movie is a cautionary tale about Americans foolish enough to venture abroad. That 's wrong, I think. Rather, the film points to how debilitating the West's fear of other cultures has become - you can see it in the panic on the bus when they're forced off the tour schedule, the grotesque over-reaction to the shooting, and in the stupid arrogance and shoot-first mentality of the border patrol guards on the Mexican border. Judging by what we see of the communities in Mexico and North Africa, this paranoia is deeply ill-founded.
You've never seen Pitt look so old and frazzled - of course it looks good on him. But the performances from many lesser-known actors are just as searching: Adrianna Barraza as the Mexican nanny; Peter Wight as a bolshy English tourist; Kikuchi as the deaf-mute girl.
Alternately cruel and compassionate, Babel is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, not more. But at least is gives us plenty to talk about.
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