Length: 143 minutes
Release Date: November 10, 2006
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
This thought-provoking 2006 drama starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Adriana Barraza follows four interconnecting stories. The families of an American tourist couple, a Mexican housekeeper, a Japanese businessman and a Moroccan shepherd collide through tragic circumstances. Events culminate in an international incident that forever changes everyone involved.
This film is, in many ways, about the failure of communication. This failure resonates not just across languages, but also across nations and cultures and even between individuals who are otherwise thought to be close.
The story unfolds in a somewhat nonlinear fashion. Most segments take up a dramatic thread from the scene that precedes it. The connection between both may take a while to become apparent. Some call this a “hyperlink” style of storytelling, similar in some ways to reading an article online and following links embedded in the article to related material. Following the story visually in this manner can at times prove frustrating for those not used to it. However, there are many great moments in the film that benefit from this greater contextual immersion. The nonlinear structure gives viewers insights they may not otherwise have.
A Japanese businessman enjoys a hunting trip to Morocco, letting his guide keep the gun he used as a gesture of gratitude. The guide sells the weapon to his shepherd friend, who in turn lends it to his sons to safeguard their flock. The boys get into a game of one-upmanship with the rifle and end up accidentally wounding an American woman on a tourist bus. Half a world away, the nanny of the woman’s children is missing her only son’s wedding while she looks after her charges.
The wounding of an American in the remote Moroccan highlands and the inability to get a surgeon to her sparks an international incident sensationalized by the media, and is soon labeled as a terrorist attack. The ripples from the tragedy wash over each of the four families, leading to a number of unexpected and, at times, tragic outcomes.
For example, the Mexican housekeeper is faced with a quandary: The children of the tourist couple are in her legal charge while their parents are away, but missing her beloved son’s wedding breaks her heart. She hits upon what, in most other times and circumstances, would be a perfectly reasonable solution in taking the children with her to the wedding. But she runs afoul with overzealous border guards when she tries to re-enter the United States, leading to a sequence of scenes that may fuel more than a few nightmares.
This movie is less about a clash of cultures than it is about how much the people in these different cultures actually have in common. Motifs of communication permeate the film, from the victim’s husband relying heavily on his cellphone to the pervasive intrusion of the media hype machine, to the deaf daughter of the Japanese businessman suffering relative isolation within her own culture because of her reliance on sign language.
Almost all the actors involved deliver first-rate performances. Brad Pitt does an admirable turn as a man haunted and infuriated by the shooting of his wife. He too often takes his rage out on the kind townsfolk helping him, foolishly assuming their ignorance and hostility where there is none. Rinko Kikuchi also does a fine job as the deaf Japanese girl acting out her teenage frustrations in the wake of a personal tragedy and her father’s involvement with the incident in Morocco. Most noteworthy are Boubker Ait El Caid and Soukayna Ait Boufakri, who play Yussef and Yamile, the two young Moroccan boys whose game leads to so much heartache. The actors capture the awkward sincerity of preteen boys perfectly in a way that transcends culture. The horrific realization of what they did, combined with their innocence and desperation, makes for some of the most compelling sequences and dialogue in the film. The heartbreak of their father, played by Mustapha Amhita, is also quite palpable.
The film is not perfect. Cate Blanchett , one of the best actresses of her generation, is underused. More insight into the woman at the center of events could have provided even more depth to the story. The non-traditional story structure can also be frustrating for the uninitiated, but viewers are rewarded with definitive payoffs for playing close attention to it.
At times, “Babel” can be a difficult film to watch because of the intensity of the stories unfolding on the screen. Its stark depictions of the pain and fear that permeate the world of its characters is unflinching. But that makes director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work here all that more compelling, leaving viewers with a film that will stick in their minds for a long time.
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