Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu || Produced by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Jon Kilik, Steve Golin
Screenplay by: Guillermo Arriaga, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu || Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi
Music by: Gustavo Santaolalla || Cinematography by: Rodrigo Prieto || Edited by: Stephen Mirrione, Douglas Crise || Country: United States, Mexico, France || Language: English, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Berber
Running Time: 143 minutes
Years before Alejandro González Iñárritu’s mighty Birdman (2014) dominated the 2015 Oscars ceremony, there was his equally unique and even more memorable Oscar-favorite, Babel. Babel is the true definition of an international production, credited to American, Mexican, and French nationalities and sporting dialogue in over five languages (including English, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, and even sign language). Its narrative structure and ensemble cast recall Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), though Iñárritu’s implementation of this multilingual, multicultural diaspora spanning continents is far more ambitious and successful. Its visuals are stunning and diverse, its characters bizarre and yet easily relatable, and all settings are interconnected by a straightforward yet thematically resounding story.
Babel, a reference to the Tower of Babel from Abrahamic Scripture, is about humanity’s failure to communicate with one another on even the most basic level. The tragedy of human misunderstanding, miscommunication, and lack of empathy leads to tragedy, Babel asserts. As the film’s Rottentomatoes consensus states, there are no heroes and villains, only victims of fate and circumstance.
Babel’s multilayered story is spread across four acts, often intercut out of chronological order. Two of these narratives take place in Morocco, where a dysfunctional American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are trying to rekindle their marriage, and a pair of local brothers guard their family’s herd of goats from jackals with a recently purchased Winchester rifle. Another story concerns the American couple’s children back in San Diego, and later near Tijuana, Mexico, where their undocumented immigrant Nanny attempts to hop back and forth over the border to attend her son’s wedding. The fourth and final story follows the daughter of the Japanese tourist who visited Morocco and gave the locals the aforementioned Winchester firearm. See where this is going, yet?
Stories like these not written or directed by Quentin Tarantino tend to fall apart given their disparate structure, complicated pacing, and lack of any defined protagonist or main character. What helps Babel maintain excitement, besides Iñárritu’s stellar direction, of course, is the sheer variety in locales, character tropes, and spoken (or unspoken) languages. In conjunction with the film’s audio-visual diversity is its strong thematic continuity. Babel is all about peoples’ inability to connect with or understand each other, and the movie makes no attempt to hide that. Whether it’s a distanced father-daughter relationship in Tokyo, an embittered Southern California couple who can’t agree on whether foreign beverages are safe to drink or not, or a border patrolman who doesn’t understand a 50 year-old nanny crossing the border with her kids probably means no harm, humans can’t seem to get the right message across. At fault are both the sender and the receiver, and the sheer relatability and repetitiveness of these interactions across cultures and languages speak to the universality of the film’s message.
An important part of the film’s appeal is its refusal to let its dour themes weigh down its visual prowess or hopeful characters. Unlike countless other Oscar-bait that get by on hack-critics’ political subjectivity or love of masochistic depictions of human rights abuses, or better yet senior citizen suicidality, Babel’s sadness is effective and tastefully sewn. It’s also not all hopeless all the time, and ends on a genuine reason for hope.
Iñárritu’s visual language is powerful. He juxtaposes rough handheld sequences with smooth, mechanical tracking shots for maximum emotional resonance. The sound editing of this film is impeccable, such that occasional rifle shots and police gunfire penetrate like cold steel, while the sounds of silence in Rinko Kikuchi’s point-of-view sequence are deafening (no pun intended) in their own right. Babel is one of those films you could watch with the sound or subtitles off and still follow exactly what’s happening, while closing one’s eyes and merely listening to the experience portrays the story in a similarly intriguing yet different light.
To be frank, I liked Babel more than Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman. It’s more ambitious and somehow, I argue, more successful in its ultimate artistic goals. It features everyone from Hollywood stars like Pitt and Blanchett to Asian big-names like Kikuchi and Koji Yakusho to virtual unknowns in most of the rest of its cast, and everyone performs spectacularly. I can’t in good conscious knock the film for its depressing mood given how effective and appropriate it is, nor how well its sobering melodies caress the suffering and redemption on-screen. This film is a sad story worth brooding over.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Iñárritu and principle screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga paint an ambitious picture of human miscommunication and tragedy, most of which comes crashing through for maximum effect. Inarritu paints beautiful visuals all his own in a multitude of nations and universal human archetypes
— However… you won’t feel like rewatching this film for a while, and it runs too long. Though the movie does not wallow in its sadness, it doesn’t make for easy viewing.
? Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. 3 Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. 4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” — Genesis 11: 1-4