In the Biblical tale of Babel, God punishes the human race for attempting to build a tower that will reach the heavens. He scatters humanity across the globe and creates different languages that make understanding impossible. The human race was left divided, confused and unable to communicate.
It seems not much has changed. Indeed, for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, things have only gotten worse.
In his third collaboration with writer Guillermo Arriaga, Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” examines the ways in which we find ourselves unable to communicate and connect with those around us. Divided not only by language but also race, religion and class, we have somehow found ourselves growing farther and farther apart in an increasingly small world. “Babel” is a film about the ways our assumptions and perceived differences keep us from connecting; it delves deep into the seemingly inescapable existential isolation that characterizes modern life, creating a kaleidoscopic lament of human sadness and grief over the state of the world.
More cohesive than “Amores Perros” and more profound than “21 Grams,” “Babel” is the strongest — and most heartbreaking — in the trilogy of Inarritu-Arriaga films. Telling four distinct but ultimately connected stories, “Babel” is constructed in the same jigsaw-like manner as its two predecessors. The film’s splintered construction and nonlinear chronology is never confusing, but Gonzalez Inarritu takes his time revealing the causalities that link the four families that the film is centered on and makes the most of the linguistic, cultural and geographical distances that separate them.
Traveling between the desolate, wind-swept mountains of Morocco, the simultaneously oppressive and dreamlike technological fluorescence of Tokyo and the tension-fraught border between California and Mexico through abrupt cuts, Gonzalez Inarritu constructs three distinct worlds, each with an individual cinematographic aesthetic and linguistic character.
Languages spoken in the film include Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, English and sign, and miscommunications occur with according frequency. But most of the misunderstandings seem to occur between family members rather than between strangers, suggesting that even those who speak the same language are unable to communicate with another, are doomed to division and disconnection all the same.
“Babel” begins in the rural Moroccan home of a farmer named Abdulluh (Mustapha Rachidi) as he barters with a neighbor for an old hunting rifle to protect his goats from jackals. He quickly hands the gun over to his two sons, the feisty Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and his older brother Ahmed (Said Tarchani), who proceed to carelessly shoot at a passing bus.
The second story involves two passengers riding on that bus: an American couple vacationing in Morocco in order to heal their marriage and escape the trauma of losing their infant son. The pivotal point of the film’s narrative (indeed, the event that ultimately connects the four seemingly disparate stories) occurs when Susan (Cate Blanchett) is badly wounded by one of the bullets fired by Yussef. She and her husband Richard — played by Brad Pitt, in his most mature and nuanced performance to date — end up in a small Moroccan village, where they struggle to get Susan the medical attention she desperately needs while remaining passengers on the tour bus grow nervous about lingering in the unprotected desert in the wake of what they believe was a terrorist attack.
A little while later, but because of the overlapping chronology of the film at seemingly the same time, Susan and Richard’s children are being taken across the Mexican border by their housekeeper, Amelia (Adrianna Barazza), whose son is getting married just outside Tijuana. Accompanied by Santiago (Gael García Bernal, in one of the film’s smaller roles), Amelia’s loose cannon of a nephew, their return journey tragically devolves into an alarming confrontation with the U.S. border patrol.
And finally, in Tokyo, following the story line that is the least obviously connected to the others, a deaf teenage girl named Chieko spirals through the turbulence of adolescence, her problems only compounded by her disability, or rather the way her peers respond to it. Played with a melancholic fierceness by Rinko Kikuchi, Chieko’s desperation and isolation are palpable in a way that none of the other characters’ are. Her mother has recently committed suicide, and Chieko acts out her grief and painfully acute need to feel connected by making sexual advances on every man that crosses her path. Her bold cries for attention continually result in humiliation, and she winds up idly drifting through the crowded, anonymous streets of her metropolitan home.
Although Chieko’s story does eventually intersect with the other three plotlines of “Babel,” her immediate removal from the tragic accident in the Moroccan desert makes her tale less fatalistic than the others. And an inescapable sense of fate is one of the hallmarks both of Arriaga’s storytelling style and of the newly emergent but still nameless genre of multi-faceted epic (read: “Crash”) to which “Babel” belongs.
As staggering a monument as the fabled tower and as ambitious an undertaking, “Babel” is one of the most complex, rich and undeniably powerful films of the year. Beautifully captured by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and accompanied by the skillfully composed original soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla (both of whom also worked on “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams”), “Babel” suggests that, while we may feel divided by cultural, socioeconomic and linguistic differences, film is a universal language that we can all understand. And Gonzalez Inarritu’s film encourages us to listen beyond the babble of our modern, globalized world and realize what we have in common, even if it’s only a common sense of isolation.