Tower of Strength

Babel, the third arm of a loose trilogy following Amores Perros and 21 Grams and similarly built around themes of cause and effect, sees Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his writing partner Guillermo Arriaga continue to connect and to challenge in this broad, daring and downright beautiful picture, which won the Best Director award at last year’s Cannes festival. The first thing we meet is the central hub around which this globalised story circles, a Winchester rifle – traded between Moroccan shepherds, the first of four seemingly unrelated but inextricably interconnected stories. A farmer named Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) buys the rifle to protect his herd of goats from roaming jackals. Although it is bigger than both of them, he gives it to his two young sons, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani). Fooling around, one of them takes aim at a passing tour bus on the mountain pass, and fires.

The bullet hits Susan (Cate Blanchett) in the neck. She is travelling with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt), a vacation intended to bring them closer together after an unspoken rift. They have left their two young children, Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Ellie Fanning) in San Diego under the care of their Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican nanny. The third arm of the story has Amelia take the two kids across the border in her nephew Santiago’s (Gael García Bernal) car, to attend a family wedding, because she cannot find anyone else to look after them for the day. The fourth section of the narrative, again somehow related to each of the other stories, introduces us to a deaf mute Japanese schoolgirl, Chieko (the outstanding Rinko Kikuchi), an isolated, unhappy girl, estranged from her father and struggling to find somebody to connect with. In many ways, the Tokyo section of the film exists on its own, being more dramatically complete than the other sections and might have formed a film on its own.

The film is beautifully photographed. The sparkling megalopolis of Tokyo contrasts with the stark Moroccan mountain desert and the dusty border wasteland between Mexico and America in the empathic compositions of regular Iñárritu collaborator Rodrigo Prieto. Although the story is deliberately unwieldy and cumbersome, it is edited with a marvellous economy and seamless fluidity. There are more than a few jarring cuts, transitions between the stories that are initially obscure, but gradually come into focus as the viewer discovers more information. There is also a fine sense of space and time in the judicious use of sound and music. The acting performances are all exemplary. Pitt and Blachett are most familiar to Western audiences and both excel in making whole and actual characters that are carefully, but finely sketched. Pitt, looking tired and grey, shows considerable power and soul in what are frantic circumstances. Blanchett glows even as she pales from loss of blood. In the Mexican section, Barraza and García Bernal are outstanding, with the standout from the ensemble being the young Japanese actress Kikuchi, who has the most challenging role, explicitly themed and hampered by her handicap, but does wonderful things with it.

Babel is a complex, wide-ranging film that takes the central idea of alienation and isolation and draws it out beyond the limits of its extension. It is about the difficulties in communication, verbal and cultural, and how these differences are what create the gaps that exist between people and further, between those people and an oppressive, uncaring bureaucracy. The film is filled with juxtapositions and contrasts that underline the director’s ideas with tremendous facility and, by their transitory nature, lyrically communicate what are difficult cinematic concepts. The final resolutions of each of the four threads amount to an emotional endurance test, as each arc is stretched well beyond comfort into an area of intense dramatic flux. Iñárritu drags us through the emotional briars of his elliptical story in a harrowingly direct way, and although the film ends on what, in context, amounts to a moment of redemption, it is a small mercy, more a final exhalation of relief than a soothing coda. Not all films are happy entertainments, which is a good thing, by the way. Sometimes there is greater satisfaction to be found in a puzzling, challenging work that asks the viewer to think than in the jumping puppet shows that trot out the same few superficial stories, seemingly just to pass the time.

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