Saturday, November 4, 2006
The film's title draws on the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in which a vengeful God punishes mankind for its arrogance in attempting to build a tower to the heavens. As punishment, God separates mankind into different races divided by different languages. The end result being that communication is greatly hindered. In the 21st century, I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu finds that we still have difficulty communicating, and that things such as 9/11, fear of terrorism, immigration and globalization all serve to complicate the process even further. I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu also suggests that the media exacerbates the problem as it translates events into news stories, but this provocative tangent is severely underdeveloped.
What sets the whole film in motion is a rifle. When a Moroccan goatherd acquires a rifle to kill pesky jackals, it sets off a series of tragedies that have global implications. His young sons, while testing and playing with the rifle, accidentally shoot an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) riding with her husband (Brad Pitt) in a travel bus. American officials in turn interpret this as an act of terrorism, and that's picked up by the news media. Back in the states, the couple's undocumented nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza of Amores Perros ) juggles taking care of their kids along with her sons wedding in Mexico. And in a fourth story, a deaf Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) struggles with the recent suicide of her mother and a father (Koji Yakusho of Shall We Dance? fame) that she thinks doesnt pay enough attention to her. The fourth storys connection to the other three is not developed until more than half way into the film. But all the stories reveal characters that have difficulty communicating or expressing themselves, characters that often face isolation or difficulties because of prejudice, stereotypes, or misunderstandings. Babel is a film that sees our flaws and vulnerabilities as the things that bind us together despite differences in language and culture.
The sprawling multi-stranded narrative structure of Babel has direct roots in Robert Altman's free-flowing and expansive cinematic canvases ( Nashville, A Wedding ), but his films tended to use a single location as the unifying factor for his large ensemble casts. With Babel , I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu spreads his tale over multiple countries. When I interviewed I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu back in 2001 for Amores Perros and asked about that films sprawling structure, he said: "It's nothing new we [I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu and co-writer Guillermo Arriaga] were inspired by William Faulkner and Kurosawa. I think we are just rediscovering it. And I think that we are so fragmented now that we are playing with computers and the Internet, we can be at different places at one time. We are living in a very fragmented time so I this kind of structure is much easier to understand because now its normal."
Gael Garcia Bernal stars in the Mexico segment of Babel.
He also voiced a preference for what he called weak, flawed characters and noted that there were biblical overtones to his first story as well. Both things also apply to his latest film Babel . As for his characters, he said: "We really want to explore that complexity of human and animal being. We are very complex and contradictory. We are not good, we are not bad, we are good and bad at the same time. The world is not black or white, its very complex, its three-dimensional. We are trying to explore that the characters are not stereotypes."
As for the Bible, I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu admitted the Bible has 90% of the things we have to deal with in it. Amores Perros dealt with notions of guilt and redemption; 21 Grams with the old testament notion of an eye for an eye; and Babel uses the Tower of Babel as an allegory for its story of troubled communication. These are films with biblical overtones yet they resist being religious in a specific sense. They attempt to deal with their biblical concepts in fairly universal terms.
I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu is an exceptionally gifted director who makes each individual scene in Babel work beautifully. However, he runs into trouble as he attempts to pull all the plot strands together. By trying to connect all the stories and in trying to make each one go horribly wrong for the participants, we must buy into one contrivance after another as each character is required to act stupidly, time and time again. I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu may want to deal with the unintended consequences of these stupid acts but the script strains credibility at so many points that the film seems about to burst under its own contrivance.
The first stupid act we have to accept and one that figures prominently in setting the whole film in motion is that the American couple (Pitt and Blanchett) would leave their two young children with Amelia, an illegal immigrant nanny, while they vacation in - of all places - Morocco in order to overcome their grief at having just lost their infant child to what appears to have been SIDS. Wouldn't this be a time to appreciate the children they still have and to comfort them over the loss of their sibling rather than to travel off alone to some foreign country? Plus, they have apparently arranged their trip at exactly the same time that Amelia's son is getting married. So the next contrivance we have to accept is that no one anywhere can be found to look after the two kids while Amelia goes to Mexico for her sons wedding. More leaps of faith are required as I & ntilde; & aacute;rritus biblical allegory plays out, and that hurts the film.
Yet when Babel fails, it at least fails in admirable ways. It avoids the fatal flaws of Crash , which were to be ambitious, heavy-handed and simplistic in tackling its complex issues. Babel fails because it tries to acknowledge the complexity of life and to construct a film that embraces so much of that complexity without simplifying. We see prejudice, racism, stereotyping, isolation, as well as divisions by country, gender, age. And there are no easy answers to any of these issues. I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu tries to do too much as he weaves his epic, but at least the emotions he stirs feel real, and his epic maintains a compelling intimacy with its characters.
Rinko Kikuchi stars as a mute teenager in Babel.
I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu also excels at getting marvelous performances from his youngest and least known performers. Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid as the Moroccan boys with the rifle, and Rinko Kikuchi as the deaf Japanese girl are stunning, and absolutely brilliant. With little dialogue they convey powerful emotions. The least impressive performances turn out to be the ones from the films big celebrities - Pitt and Blanchett. Its not that they are bad but rather that their presence makes the film unbalanced. I heard many viewers complain that it took so long to get to the main story with the Americans and that Pitt and Blanchett were hardly on screen at all. The fact that they are stars creates the expectation that they are the main attraction and in Babel , they are not what the story is about, nor are they meant to be. They are merely a part of the fabric of a much bigger story.
Plus, there are also issues with how the characters are written. Pitt comes across as an erratic, ugly American. One moment hes sharing photos of his kid with a local man whos trying to help his injured wife, and the next moment hes railing at the man and hurling obscenities at him. Then he tries to offer him money to clear his conscience. Are these things meant to tie into the theme about the difficulty of communicating? Are we meant to excuse Pitts behavior because his wife has been shot? Hes also unsympathetic to Amelias pleas that she must attend her sons wedding. Even in the midst of a crisis, Pitt's character should reveal some compassion toward Amelias situation. But then maybe his behavior explains why he has absolutely no friends to call on to come and watch his kids in a moment of desperate need.
The best parts of the film actually turn out to be the ones least directly connected to the story of the shooting. The scenes set in Japan involving Chieko, the young deaf girl and her father are almost transcendent in their inspired execution. For Chieko, communication is made even more difficult by her handicap, and its here where I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu makes the film soar. His choice of cutting the sound completely out at a dance club where Chieko watches people dance wildly is vividly effective. Seeing these people cavorting about without hearing the music allows us to see the world as she does and to be somewhat baffled by it. In these scenes where dialogue is minimal if even existent, I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu creates a vivid portrait of modern life in which a crowded big city can be as lonely and vast a place as the open deserts of Morocco.
All three of I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu's films also have violence at their core, be it a car crash, hit and run deaths or a shooting. The violence in all three is shockingly abrupt and disturbing, which is as it should be. Thats because I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu eschews the Hollywood approach to violence: I want to take out the frivolous part of the violence that is classic in American film. Take out the glamour, the superficial part. I didnt use the violence to entertain people or make people laugh. I cannot laugh about violence because I live in a violent city [Mexico City] and I know the painful consequences of that violence.
Babel (rated R for language, nudity and violence) is a provocative film whose parts are better than the whole. It has serious flaws and an almost relentless sense of tragedy yet its passion to create something epic and very human proves compelling. It has transcendent moments but it also proves frustrating in the choices it makes. It shuffles its narrative, but gains no artistic advantage from it nor does the restructuring of chronology lead to any fresh insights. In Amores Perros , the fractured structure led to connections and revelations that enriched the film but here it just tends to distract and delay information. Like the world it tries to depict, Babel is rather chaotic, frustrating and scattered.
Companion viewing: Amores Perros, 21 Grams , Nashville