In the opening scenes of "Babel," the new film from master director Alejandro González IZá, we are introduced to a husband and a wife, played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett,in the middle of the Morocco desert.
"Richard, why did we come here?"
"To be alone. . .?"
"Hm. . . .alone. . . "
By looking around the area, there are numerous tourists, tents, and sand. They have come to the right place. All of the central characters in "Babel" are alone, either literally or figuratively. They are all looking for something outside of their own lives, and at the same time they are trying to get by in the world even with the barriers that separate them. It is an ensemble piece, one of those inter connected character pieces, except with a twist. These are four different stories, all taking place in a different part of the world, globally connecting everyone. It is also a commentary on the state of America, the war, as well as gun control. It is very powerful, and so masterfully directed that you sometimes forget you are even watching a movie. And its by far one of the years best.
The film opens with Abdullah, a sheepherder who has recently purchased a rifle from Hassan, for his children to go hunting with. Hassan boasts about the rifle, and brags about how far the bullet will travel. The boys decide to see this for themselves, but a stray bullet ends up hitting a bus, as well as hitting a woman in the neck. The woman is Susan Jones, who is on a small vacation with her husband Richard. The two are obviously on the verge of separation, especially after the death of one of their children, but Richard freaks out when his wife is hit. He runs off the bus, looking for medical attention, but not a soul can understand a word he says. They eventually find a place where Susan can get an operation. Richard frantically calls his home, but cannot find a babysitter for his kids. The housekeeper becomes forced to stay at the house for a few more days, even if that means missing her sons wedding. However, the housekeeper, named Amelia, refuses to let this be an issue, and decides to take the kids with her over the border, to her sons wedding. She enlists aid in her nephew, Santiago, and has faith in their safe trip. While they do have a safe trip there, it’s the journey home that becomes a nightmare. Lastly there is Chieko, a deaf teen living in Japan, whose mother has recently died. She is vulnerable, often lifting up her skirt in the middle of public to catch the attention of boys around. And she also wants to make a connection with her father, whose work often makes him be working late. And now, the single rifle shot will change the lives of everyone in these stories forever.
I have always said that these types of film are amazing when they are done right. "Babel" is done perfectly. All four of the stories are worthy of being told, and when one story is not being done, there is another even better one to fall back on. I also enjoyed the air of mystery with the reason why Chieko is involved in the story. It is obviously how the other three are connected, and while the final story is not made clear until the last few minutes, it is not as special as it could have been. "Babel" is all about being alone, usually based on the race and language barrier. Richard has a difficult time finding help for his wife, as either
a) the people in Morocco cannot understand what he is saying
b) the American government is too concerned with the "terrorists" that caused the problem to really care.
Richard’s problem is perfect commentary on the state of the world at the moment. We are all so wrapped up in the ideas of terrorists and the like that we forget the little problems and events that are effects. All Richard needs is a doctor, and the amount of time it takes, as well as the people that he has to disturb in order to get to it, is incredible. Chieko is not bound by her language, but her lack thereof. She is forced to live in Japan deaf, and the silent scenes of her in the nightclubs dancing are powerful, due to the realism.
The acting is all on par and terrific. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett seem to have the smallest roles, even if their names are splashed all over the advertisements. But they both express extremely emotional rages, especially Pitt as the scared husband. Blanchett screams and moans for most of her part, but any film with Cate Blanchett, no matter what she is doing, is worth seeing. Gael Garcia Bernal is amusing in his section, but the real center of the film lies in the work of Adriana Barraza, who plays Amelia, and Rinko Kikuchi, as Chieko. I don’t want to reveal what happens to Amelia, but she remains strong throughout the entire thing. We feel bad for her, mostly because we know that she didn’t do anything wrong. Kikuchi’ story is full of depth, and really has the power to be an entire film of its own.
This is not the first film of this kind that Alejandro González IZá has directed. Fresh off of "21 Grams," he knows how to do inter connected plotline stories, and he knows how to do them well. While "Babel" is not nearly as puzzling and confusing as "21 Grams," it doesn’t tell you the connections until the very end. But we are aware that they are there, and have a vague idea. "21 Grams" seemed like it took the script and mixed up the scenes in a bag and showed them in that order. "Babel" does not rely on this technique, but it uses it to put us on a roller coaster of emotions. Since each story is like its own little short film, there are highs and lows and all of them, and they don’t all come at the same time.
I’ve narrowed the meaning of the title to two things. The first is the Tower of Babel, which fell a long time ago. Much like the tower, the stories in this film grow and build, until the lives of everyone just falls apart. The first scene, where the rifle is purchased and the boys begin to use it, are the building process. It is about ten minutes long, and while nothing much happens, we build the tension. We know that this rifle is going to cause some kind of problems, but what. Once the bullet shoots, everything falls apart, and nothing will be the same. The second is to pronounce it in a different way. Say it "Babble." To babble is to speak, but not make any sense. And everyone in this is speaking, but nobody is even listening. The language barrier causes babbling sounds. What does it sound like with a person of another race begins speaking to you in a different language?
In the end, though, "Babel" is just great filmmaking. It is constantly enjoyable, and it pulls you in from the very first shot. It offers some great commentary, great performances, great cinematography, as well as prime entertainment. It hooks you, and that is what a director should aim for. It is advertised like last years "Syriana," but in the end it is a much better film. Not only is it more coherent, but it is deeper, and touches more emotional highs. In this year’s Oscar race, "Babel" is one of the years best.