Among the much hyped movies that came out this season, Babel has entered theaters quietly and without fanfare. Don’t let this fool you. This is one of the best movies that you will see in quite some time, and that’s saying a lot. Read on:
The only appropriate metaphor for watching a film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” While other directors create imaginative, complex, even harrowing situations and then unspool the tension to provide the audience with a reprieve or release, Inarritu escalates the action — both physical and emotional — until the tension is virtually unbearable. In his latest film, Babel, the director intertwines four stories that are overripe with nail-biting potential and then unleashes them on the audience without mercy. And while this may actually rank as the most challenging, difficult, and yes, harrowing film of his still-young career, seldom has the prospect of being terrorized by a filmmaker seemed so positively invigorating.
Much like the timeline of Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Inarritu’s previous films, Babel takes what seems like a split second of action and elongates it to encompass the individual experiences of all involved. While on vacation in Morocco, husband and wife Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are waylaid by an unprompted gunshot wound and forced to acquiesce to local medical standards. The shot, as it turns out, was fired by two young boys who toyed with the new rifle their father gave them to protect their sheep.
In the meantime, the American tourists’ children have themselves been shepherded into Mexico by their nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who finds herself in deep trouble when her nephew runs afoul of the border patrol. And on the other side of the globe, a young deaf girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) reaches out desperately to connect with her peers, but finds that her handicap is social as well as physical.
Each of these individual stories could have formed a full film unto itself, but Inarritu’s mastery of storytelling manages to lay this bag of snakes out straight. While he juxtaposes major leaps forward and back in the actual chronology of events, each shift feels like a natural stair step between one moment and the next — elevating the emotional rather than intellectual intensity of the narrative. Whereas many directors choose to employ shifting time frames and overlapping narratives simply to demonstrate their dexterity as storytellers, Inarritu deliberately uses this structure to heighten the action, creating the simultaneous feeling that either leaving one story or returning to another will exacerbate the characters’ relative plights.
Despite his natural visual panache, Inarritu is remarkably understated in his shot choices; rather than punctuating each new development — such as the introduction of a gun at Amelia’s son’s wedding — he simply observes the moment, and then leaves it to the audience to bring his or her associations and reactions. What’s even more exciting is the discovery (after the film is over, of course) that some of these are just plain wrong. Precisely because audiences have been weaned on filmmaking formulas that insist certain developments occur because of specific visual cues or narrative rhythms, there is a sensation both of relief and terror that our conventional expectations have been subverted and transformed into new ones.
Ultimately, however, the humanity of the characters is what binds us to them. Though Inarritu makes a pointed deconstruction of the difference between language (the technical tool) and communication (the sentiment that conveys the tool’s message), he never fails to make us see what each character is feeling, or is believing, and empathize with it regardless of how dissimilar it is to our perspective. Just as American-white-male Richard’s increasing frustration is palpable from the point of view of being a first-time outsider, Chieko’s inability to connect, and her desperation for intimacy — of any kind — is also strikingly immediate. Much like the biblical tower whose name inspired the film, the disparate languages of the characters serve both as a barrier and conduit for the more important information being communicated: who we are, what we want and ultimately how we can connect and help one another.
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