Director Alejandro González Iñárritu does love his interlocking narratives. From “Amores Perros” to “21 Grams” to “Babel,” his latest film, he and collaborator Guillermo Arriaga devote a great deal of work to exploring humanity’s innate interconnectedness.
As in his previous efforts, Iñárritu uses a single event as a starting point for the big picture. In “Babel,” the catalyst is a careless gunshot. The bullet is fird by Yussuf, a young Moroccan goatherd who – along with his brothers – carelessly test-fires a rifle recently acquired by their father. The errant shot hit a tour bus, specifically, an American tourist named Susan (Cate Blanchett). Her husband Richard (Brad Pitt), panic-stricken at the realization that they’re four hours from the nearest hospital, takes Susan to a small local village where it becomes increasingly apparent that help is a long way off, if it arrives at all.
Meanwhile, in San Diego, Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is taking care of Mike and Debbie, two children whose parents are out of town. Since Mom and Dad are unexpectedly unable to return in time for her to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico, and since she’s unable to find anyone to help, Amelia elects to take the children with her, a decision that will have grave consequences.
Finally, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a deaf-mute Tokyo high school student dealing with the recent death of her mother while attempting to restore a relationship with her distant father. She is also desperate for more intimate contact, to the point where she makes brash and ill-advised overtures towards members of the opposite sex. Unlike the others, she’s also alienated in her own country, her disability making her a different kind of “foreigner.”
As I’ve mentioned, all these stories are connected. I won’t elaborate as to how, though I’d think one would be obvious within the first 20 minutes (and yet to hear the gasps around me in the theater, it wasn’t plain to all). There’s some straining of credibility, as Iñárritu is so eager to show the universality of our experience he has to make some facile story decisions, but the links themselves aren’t really the point. As the title suggests, “Babel” is about communication, the lack thereof, and the difficulties therein. The movie is told in five languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, and sign), emphasizing the barriers when dealing with cultures totally foreign to each other (American vs. Moroccan, deaf vs. hearing).
But more than that rudimentary assessment, the movie deals with interpersonal relationships. Susan and Richard’s marriage is suffering due to some unspoken recent incident, while Yussuf finds himself in as much trouble with his father for the rifle incident as he does for some improper behavior with his sister. The larger plot elements merely serve to highlight the difficulties we all have in reaching others and making them understand our needs and desires.
Beautifully shot and economically written, “Babel” is nonetheless handicapped by its simplistic message, and it’s the same one Arriaga has been beating us over the head with since the superior “Amores Perros.” Yes, we’re all connected. Furthermore, we learn that sometimes those closest to us are the hardest to reach and – here’s the most important lesson – if you’re going to a Mexican wedding, make plans to spend the night. The film is technically superior, and its look and the strength of its performances (Blanchett, Barraza, and Kikuchi especially) carry it above similar fare (*cough* “Crash” *cough*), but the message is stale. “Babel” is recommended viewing, but keep the aforementioned reservations in mind.