Tuesday 3 May 2016

Movie Review: Babel (2006)

An interrelated multi-story drama set simultaneously in four countries, Babel is an engrossing film about the ties that bind across continents.

In Morocco, American couple Richard and Susan Jones (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are part of a tour group as they try to rebuild their marriage after a family trauma. While on the tour bus in a remote desert region of the country, Susan is struck and badly wounded by a seemingly random bullet through the window. The accidental shooter is young local goat herder Yussef, whose father had purchased the rifle for his sons to scare away jackals. Richard rushes Susan to a local village to try and get the assistance of a doctor and call an ambulance. The shooting is mistakenly labelled a terrorist attack and triggers an international incident.

In San Diego, Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is the Jones' nanny, and the events in Morocco mean that she is stuck caring for their two young children Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble) much longer than she planned for. Desperate to attend her son's wedding in Mexico and unable to find another caregiver, Amelia takes Debbie and Mike with her across the border in the car of her highly excitable nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) on a journey with many unexpected outcomes.

In Japan, Chieko Wataya (Rinko Kikuchi) is the deaf-mute teenage daughter of businessman Yasujiro (Kōji Yakusho). Chieko is still traumatized by the death of her mother, and her mood is not improved when a call goes against her volleyball team and boys either ignore her and or make fun of her disability. When detective Kenji Mamiya come looking for her father to ask about his possible connection to a shooting incident in Morocco, Chieko's already fragile emotional state shatters in an explosion of repressed sexuality and potential danger.

Directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel is a modern story of an interconnected world where small events create ripples with an astonishing reach. The film jumps around in place and time but remains tightly connected, the stories distinct but inseparable. There is relatively little dialogue in the film: events speak for themselves, and Iñárritu emphasizes the common human emotions of shock, grief, loss, and dealing with adversity in any context.

When communication is needed, the characters speak in their native language (and in the case of Chieko, in sign language), and at the heart of each episode is a story of an aching loss. In the case of Richard, Susan, Chieko and Yasujiro, sorrow is a starting point. For Amelia and the rural Moroccan family of goat herders, misfortune is an unexpected outcome of seemingly innocuous, and indeed well-intentioned decisions.

Doing good and finding trouble is one of the themes that seeps through Babel. The rifle that derails Susan's life changes hands for all the right reason: a hunter gifting his local guide, a neighbour helping a fellow neighbour chase away jackals. Amelia genuinely cares about Debbie and Mike, and also wants to be a good mother by not missing her son's wedding. Unfortunate events stem from kind gestures, and the film explores how characters react when the normal orbit of life is unintentionally knocked into disarray by others.

And when things do go bad, it is the kindness of strangers that often comes to the fore. Local villagers become essential to the survival of Richard and Susan, much more so that their fellow tourists. And after feeling detached from her father and peers, Chieko turns to detective Mamiya to try and recover from her sense of loss and abandonment.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are the most prominent members of a large international cast. Pitt as Richard Jones gets overexcited on a couple of occasions to help confirm the stereotype of Americans as boorish travelers, while Blanchett spends plenty of time drifting in and out of consciousness. The two best performances are delivered by Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza, two women dealing with exceptional and trying circumstances.

In Babel the characters speak the many different languages, and some don't speak at all; regardless, their lives are intricately interwoven across time and space.

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