Parental abandonment and isolation, from Mexico to
Morocco to Japan
PopcornReel.com Movie Review: "Babel"
By Omar P.L. Moore/October 30, 2006 -- published November 3, 2006
The rejected, the
despised and the helpless: Elle Fanning over the shoulder of Adriana Barazza;
Gael Garcia Bernal; Brad Pitt in "Babel". (Photos: Paramount Vantage)
With "Babel" there's no doubt that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
establishes himself as the world's best filmmaker of this new century -- at
least one of the very best that the world of cinema has to offer right now.
"Babel" is the year's best film so far, and the key to it is the excellent
screenplay written and conceived by Guillermo Arriaga, whose story structure is
so compact, intricate and seamless that it seems too good to be true. When
you have such great writing like this, and a director who supplements it with
calm, confident, effortless direction, you end up with a film that is not
only special, but magical.
Inarritu's scope broadens even though his interweaving three-story
reverse-chronological structure does not. This time there are three
locations: Mexico, Morocco and Japan, spanning the globe from west to east.
In those locales both vast space and highly populated areas abound, with the
human beings found in them trapped by silence, abandonment, isolation, or all
three. For Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), it is
isolation as a feuding married couple in Morocco in Northern Africa with no
knowledge of the Arabic language that engulfs them. This is amplified when
Susan is pierced by a sniper's bullet. Richard's frantic "American-ness"
comes to the fore, making him both a hostile and desperate character as he
pleads for the natives to help and for the tourists he rides with not to leave.
Story number two is about two Moroccan boys who are using firearms to shoot
jackal, but while the father is away, the kids are sure to play -- with
something as a target that is more vulnerable than a jackal. The distance
between the kids and the tour bus that they aim at from the country's
mountaintops is the expanse that highlights just how inadequate a human being's
actions and deliberations are -- or just how exacting their miscalculations can
be. In a moment where they have all the time in the world to think about
the consequences, all the space, all the peace -- they take matters into their
own hands. But they are young boys, and they have been left alone by their
father. (And as they say, boys will be boys.)
The third story finds us in Japan with a deaf-mute teenager who is looking for
her father to pay a semblance of attention to her. This appeal is
heightened after the suicide of her mother, who apparently shot herself with her
husband's hunter's rifle -- or so we are left to assume or imagine. This
particular rifle is a crucial component in "Babel", linking these stories
together in a way that six degrees of separation never could. The young
girl is Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) and she will do almost anything to get the
attention of a young or old man. There are layers to her character, some
of which are left unspoken and implied, and others which are known, albeit
sketchily. Her impairment is a character of its own, and we feel it.
In another filmmaker's hands perhaps Chieko's deafness would be a gimmick or an
appendage, but Inarritu directs from her point of view in a sensitive and
powerful way, and we feel it, especially in the discotheque in which Chieko
"loses" herself metaphorically in myriad ways.
The silent and the
unforgiving: Rinko Kikuchi and Cate Blanchett in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's
"Babel". (Photos: Paramount Vantage)
Additionally, "Babel" has stories within a story. Racism is an
undercurrent weaved into the film. The media furor is electric when Susan,
a white woman, is struck and injured -- the U.S. Embassy in Morocco conveniently
makes a knee-jerk assumption, blaming the act on "terrorists" read: Muslims;
meanwhile Amelia (Adriana Barazza), a Mexican woman who has literally dedicated
her own life to kids that aren't her own, comes to an emotional crossroads.
After Amelia commits one singular, foolish act, which bitter pill will she be
compelled to swallow? And Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) makes a joking
pronouncement about Mexico being dangerous because of its population when Mike
asks about assumptions about the country's dangerous terrain. "Babel" asks
many questions (and answers a few); among the queries are does one act define us
for the rest of our lives? Can we be forgiven? Susan hasn't forgiven
Richard for running out on their kids Mike and Debbie (Nathan Gamble and Elle
Fanning), and Chieko hasn't forgiven her father Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho) for his
perhaps implied responsibility for her mother's suicide.
Where "21 Grams" was more visceral and overtly philosophical, "Babel" is
quieter, less manic and disjointed, all the while remaining a probing drama.
Its editing is almost flawless, and Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione are to be
thanked for that.
Rash actions arise from the suddenness of crisis, the frustrating clash of
culture, language and circumstance, the randomness of fate, the deafening
silence of deafness and of not being heard. "Babel" illustrates in many
scenes of amazing visuals of each locale, a juxtaposition of singular human
against the backdrop of vast desert in Mexico, the quiet and eerie mountains of
Morocco, the openness of a nighttime skyline from a balcony view in Japan.
The ingenuity and beauty of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's shots is that they
are supplemented with later shots of the same locations but this time densely
populated. Whether it be in Mexico at a large joyous wedding celebration,
in Morocco with a multitude of local villagers congregating in the streets, or
in Japan at a claustrophobic discotheque, these sudden shots of waves of
humanity jam-packed into small confines perfectly depict the tension of
loneliness and needing to belong at the same time, since in "Babel" people's
lives literally depend on needing to belong, whether to a family, a country, or
That these three locations were shot -- each of these countries are among the
oldest on earth -- is no accident. Inarritu suggests that these conflicts
within humans and family have existed from time immemorial -- and it's true as
the title "Babel", which means "Tower of Babylon", as well as a "confusion of
sounds and voices," in many dictionaries, has its Biblical overtones as well.
In "Babel" many people are shouting but very few are listening. It is this
lack of listening that leads to danger, and the scenes where languages spoken
from the tongues of the wounded are wrestling each other are the best ones, even
if they are sometimes spoken in frayed and almost feral tones. When
Spanish is being spoken against English; when English is being spoken against
Arabic; when Japanese is being spoken against silence, which has a language all
its own, the confusion of language and voice becomes perplexing, agonizing and
even beautiful. The language diversity defines boundary as well as tragic
The isolated and the
desperate: Both claustrophobia and openness frame "Babel", directed by Alejandro
Gonzalez Inarritu (pictured right.) (Photos: Paramount Vantage)
In each of these stories, which are essentially one story in
the collective human experience, emotional resonance is something that is not
hard to feel. Inarritu's storytelling and directing style key in on the
emotions of each character -- their yearnings, disappointments, angers, fears
and tragedies. This theme has been a recurring one in Inarritu's films and
each film packs a punch. This is none so real than with "Babel", which has
some quietly moving moments towards its finale, and The Kronos Quartet's "When
Our Wings Are Cut, Can We Still Fly?", pulls the emotional strings within the
viewer. This stirring piece of music has now played over the conclusion
and end credits of each of Inarritu's films ("Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" are
the others) and the emotional weight of what precedes this music is made larger
by its presence. We are moved even more when "Wings" plays. Music
does something indescribable to the soul and Inarritu wisely uses the Kronos
Quartet's piece in the right place and time.
Above all, issues of loneliness, abandonment, isolation and parental
responsibility (or lack thereof) are front and center in "Babel", for if parents
cannot protect or properly safeguard their own children, who will? Richard
and Susan are as culpable in their own conduct and neglect of their children as
Amelia is, yet they behave as if their own smugness and arrogance insulates them
from responsibility. Never does there seem to be a hint of responsibility
taken by Richard except perhaps when things look very dicey. The two
children in Morocco grow up very fast without any real parental supervision.
And communication lacks severely in Japan, where Chieko is at her wits end.
Her father might hear her as she signs to him, but he doesn't ever listen -- and
that is a huge difference.
"Babel" features an excellent ensemble cast of which four actors stand out:
Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko, Koji Yakusho as Yasujiro, Adriana Barazza as Amelia,
and Mohamed Akhzam as Anwar -- Akhzam and Pitt develop a credible chemistry as
two fathers in the midst of crisis, a chemistry that is natural and refreshing.
They talk about their kids, and Anwar wonders why Richard has "only two" kids.
For all the weightier issues in "Babel", the film provides many small, happy
moments, and this exchange between two fathers is one of them.
How much more can one say about such a mature and serious film? Inarritu
and Arriaga hit the mark, as does the music of Gustavo Santaolalla -- his guitar
is another amazing instrument on this film's soundtrack.
Simply put, "Babel" is a film of profound emotion, scope and truth.
Copyright 2006. PopcornReel.com. All Rights Reserved.
"Babel" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence,
some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use. The film
runs for two hours and 26 minutes and contains subtitles in English, with spoken
languages of English, Arabic and Spanish. "Babel" expands its release on
November 3, and goes wide across the United States and Canada on November 10.