A Moroccan mountain herder buys a high-powered hunting rifle from a local hunting guide to kill the jackals that decimate his goat population. He hands the weapon over to his two young sons and, as boys will be boys, they must test the gun’s accuracy, targeting a distant tour bus. Little do they know that their fateful shot will, quite literally, be heard ‘round the world in Babel.”
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu third film is a world-hopping effort that spans four counties, from Morocco to Southern California, Mexico and Japan. It is an ambitious work with the megastar presence of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett leading a cast of mostly non-actors in a story of one innocent but violent act that shakes the lives of many.
The sons of the goat herder take the prized, expensive hunting rifle and head into the hills to protect their herd and hunt marauding jackals. They try out their new toy but miss in their first attempt to kill a canine predator. The younger of the two challenges his brother to take a shot at a far off bus. He misses the target. The youngster grabs the rifle, takes a bead on the moving target and fires. Suddenly, the bus swerves off the road and the boys, scared, run away.
On the bus, Richard (Pitt) and Susan (Blanchett) are trying to get away from their own personal loss when the bullet strikes Susan in the shoulder, nicking a vital artery. Frantic, Richard begs for help but that aid is hundreds of miles away. They are taken to a remote village where a veterinarian stitches the stricken woman until they can get her to safety. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in California, their housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), is set to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico but must deal with finding someone to take care of her employers’ two young children. But, no one will take on the task and Amelia is forced to take the kids with her. This decision will have dire results.
In Tokyo, deaf teen Chieko (pop star Rinko Kikuchi) is trying to cope with her budding womanhood and the recent suicide of her mother. Her father (Koji Yakusho), it turns out, was on a hunting trip, not long ago, in Morocco, where he presented his guide with the hunting rifle that will cause so much trouble and suffering for so many.
Inarritu made an international splash with his first film, “Amoros Peros,” that began his obsession with telling stories from different perspectives. He continued this method with the gritty “21 Grams” and, once again with screenwriting collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, carries on his multilevel storytelling. While Babel” is his most elaborate work yet, it is also less enthralling than his previous works, especially his debut effort. The world-spanning story has intriguing elements, particularly the plight of the two youngsters that set things in motion with a single shot. But, the overall study falls short of these individual stories. It’s a case of the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. I give it a B.
An American couple touring Morocco to heal an ailing marriage face tragedy when the wife is shot. Thousands of miles away, their Mexican housekeeper Amelia (Adriana Barraza, "Amores perros") makes a bad decision that will endanger their children and change her life forever. A deaf mute Japanese girl tries to communicate her grief through brazen sexual behavior but rebuffs the single parent she is left with, a father trying to find his own way after the death of his wife. They are all tied together by the gun held by a young Moroccan goatherd and their failures to communicate create a global thread of "Babel."
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores Perros," "21 Grams") goes to Writer Guillermo Arriaga's ("Amores Perros," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") well for a third helping of interweaving stories told in triptych yet while the pair's filmmaking skills cannot be denied, the film's emotional resonance is weakened by a feeling of repetition and cliche - the gun which passes through multiple hands has been used time and time again. Even the film's more outre Japanese story feels borrowed from better films like "Under the Skin."
That said, there are compelling moments and some fine acting in "Babel." At first we think Richard (Brad Pitt) has cheated on Susan (Cate Blanchett). 'You'll never forgive me, will you?' he asks his silent, retreating wife. But when he realizes she's been shot, his anguish is very real as he must fight not only for her life miles away from any real medical facility, but against the boorish tourists who would strand him, convinced the shooting was a terrorist act. One kindly local man takes Richard into his home where the weird ministrations of an old crone have a strangely calming effect on Susan. The greatest, most intimate moment in the entire film is difficult to describe because of its very oddness - Richard holds his wife over a pan so she may relieve herself, and the couple begin to kiss quite passionately, their rift repaired by their extraordinary situation and Richard's reaction to it.
Back home, their housekeeper Amelia is told that no one can come to relieve her after all. She will have to stay with Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning, "Because of Winn-Dixie"), the couple's children. But it is her son's wedding in Mexico that the woman was headed for. Before you can think 'federal offense,' Amelia's nephew, the rash Santiago (Gael García Bernal, "Amores Perros," "The Science of Sleep"), has arrived to drive her and the children she could not find another sitter for over the border.
In Tokyo, deaf mute Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) rebuffs her caring dad Yasujiro (Kôji Yakusho, "Memoirs of a Geisha") to hang with her handicapped girlfriends in search of boys, but when she is rejected because of her deafness Chieko reacts by becoming more and more sexually brazen. Kikuchi is very good in the role, but the psychology of the situation isn't well integrated into the story, nor is the violence of her mother's suicide equated with the rifle Yasujiro brought to Morocco on a hunting trip and left with a guide.
As things circle around back to the beginning, we learn that it was that guide who sold the rifle to the father of goat herders two young boys, the younger of which tries to show up the elder, poorer shot. He demonstrates the gun's range by shooting at a distant bus - the vehicle carrying Richard and Susan. Despite the boys' remote environment, they are never presented as unintelligent, making this act a little difficult to swallow. Even accepting this, the manhunt which ensues is overblown and veers into false cinematic melodrama. More real is the just but undeserved fate of Amelia, who ends up wandering the desert in a festive red dress trying to save the children she endangered. That phone call from a frantic Richard telling her she must stay put is repeated and the lack of each party's attempt to understand the other's distress is neatly underscored.
Arriaga's script also notes man's disregard for the feelings of animals (Santiago beheads a chicken in front of the horrified Debbie and Mike, Yasujiro's apartment is adorned with hunting trophy heads, the Moroccan guide's hut is covered in goat hides) and his communication theme is furthered by the many languages in play - Amelia speaks to her Anglo charges in Spanish, Chieko signs and reads lips. The state of marriage figures in each statement with one being fought for in Morocco, one being celebrated in Mexico and one being mourned in Tokyo.
The film is beautifully photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, who wisely dispenses with the bleached chic of "21 Grams" and composer Gustavo Santaolalla continues to build an impressive body of film scoring. Sound (and its lack in many of Chieko's scenes, a device the director used effectively in his "11'09''01 - September 11" segment) is beautifully employed.
Iñárritu, whose reputation has stumbled after he disinvited his screenwriter from the Cannes Film Festival for ostensibly taking too much credit for his work, is now at a fateful crossroads. It is time to move on and his next work will be telling. While good and often effective, "Babel" owes too much to films of the director's own and others.