Babel (Paramount Vantage, R)

babelUnlike last year's insulting pabulum of the over-hyped Crash, Iñárritu and Arriaga pull their film through without the condescending morality of the former. For all its surface contrivances, Babel is ultimately less determined to prove its point than to peel back the brutality and indignity of randomness.

 

 

Babel is a nearly unforgettable mediation on the absurdities of chance, the same territory director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga mined with their two previous films Amores Perros and 21 Grams. This, the third in their trilogy, follows the same multi-layered storytelling of cause and effect, lit by a singular event ricocheting off everything—past, present, and future.

Starting in Morocco—where a goat herder, Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi), purchases a hunting rifle and ammunition from a local to ward off predatory threats to his family's herd, and ending in the luminous Tokyo night—Babel stretches itself tenuously thin. Fortunately, unlike last year's insulting pabulum of the over-hyped Crash, Iñárritu and Arriaga pull their film through without the condescending morality of the former. For all its surface contrivances, Babel is ultimately less determined to prove its point than to peel back the brutality and indignity of randomness.film_babel

Early in the film, Abdullah's sons, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani), are entrusted by their father with the rifle, and kids being kids, find themselves testing each other's mettle and even the accuracy of the range of the ammunition. When a tour bus is spotted winding its way through the mountainous terrain, the brothers decide it's a perfect opportunity to test whether the cartridges are even useful. Yussef takes aim at the bus and fires. At first, the boys believe nothing has happened, and one turns to the other: "You're right, they are useless." When the two see the bus stopping after a moment, they quickly realize something horrible has just taken place.

The consequences of such mischievous boyishness are most noticeably visited upon troubled American couple Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett). Having traveled to Morocco to repair the schism left by the loss of one of their children, they soon become an international event when the bullet Yussef launched pierces Susan's neck. The ensuing chaos touches each of the film's storylines in ways both immediate and removed. In the middle of nowhere, hours from hospitals in either direction, a decision is made to travel to tour guide Anwar's (Mohamed Akhzam) hometown where at least some form of medical help can be obtained. Once word of the act spreads to the outside world, terrorism is the immediate assumption, and political machinations start to turn, ensnaring Richard as he tries to seek help from the American embassy.

Richard and Susan's other problem is their two children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), still in San Diego, under the always present care of housekeeper Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who is awaiting some form of relief so she may attend her son's wedding. When she is unable to secure care for the children, she informs her nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) the children will be riding along. In Mexico, the young children experience both giddy delights and moments of startling reality. Forced by the necessity to get Debbie and Mike back to San Diego, Amelia once again relies upon Santiago, but his drunken judgment and general cockiness are a bad match for a middle of the night border stop. On the run from the authorities, Santiago abandons his aunt and the children in the middle of the desert, where the three are left to fend for themselves.

In Tokyo, the film's other thread plays out in the form of a Chieko (Rinko Kikushi), a deaf-mute teenager who repels her father's (Koji Yakusho) attempts at affection, and seeks it out instead in the most confusing of all teen wants: sex. Under the spell of her mother's recent suicide, the girl comes up against the world's indifference and ridicule of her condition, which Iñárritu captures beautifully in the silent void of point-of-view shots, including a stroll through a frenetic and strobe-lit nightclub. Chieko continually struggles for outside male affection, and grasps at almost anyone around her.

The stories of Babel are narrative scattershot, jumping from flash point to flash point, and with each turn, the degrees of separation between each tale gets knocked down a few notches. Moroccan police search out the owner of the rifle—which found its way into the country through a Japanese hunter—and show no matter the language, authority sometimes wields and unruly hand. The other passengers on the tour bus become agitated and riddled with fear as their biases fester in the hot dessert sun as Richard seeks out medical aid or reassurance from the embassy that help is on the way. Amelia wanders the border wasteland in her red dress, trying desperately to get the children safely back home.

The film is exquisitely shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who has also worked on Brokeback Mountain and Alexander, as well as lensing both Amores Perros and 21 Grams. But nothing, not the beauty of the locations, Arriaga's sometimes puzzling script, or the sheer vision of Iñárritu can compare to the magnitude of the performances. The multilingual cast should be heralded, from the children to the oldest of the adults, it's a rapturous chorus. While Pitt and Blanchett are pitch-perfect in the time-honored role of the despondent indie film married couple, each character is memorable, a testament to Iñárritu's prowess as a filmmaker, and maybe a reason to invent a new Oscar category: Best Ensemble Cast. | Shandy Casteel

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