Film-Forward Review: [BABEL]

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Brad Pitt as Richard
Photo: Murray Close/Paramount Vantage

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Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Produced by: Iñárritu, Jon Kilik & Steve Golin.
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga, based on an idea by Iñárritu & Arriaga.
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto.
Edited by: Stephen Mirrione & Douglas Crise.
Music by Gustavo Santaolalla.
Released by: Paramount Vantage.
Language: English, Spanish, Japanese, Berber, Arabic & sign language with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: USA. 143 min. Rated R.
With: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Said Tarchani, Boubker Ait El Caid, Mustapha Rachidi, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble, & Mohamed Akhzam.

Two young brothers head to the Moroccan mountains for target practice. A curious natural with a rifle, the younger brother shows off by aiming at a tour bus winding through the road below. On the bus, an American woman is struck in the neck. The boys run off. International chaos ensues. In their third feature together, director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) once again use a tragic event to spin an interwoven narrative, and in the process produce one of the year’s most well-made films.

This film tells four stories of how miscommunication obstructs gratification, whether it is sexual, spiritual, or some undefined, unquenchable yearning for a more fulfilling life. Such is the case with Brad Pitt’s Richard, a husband and father who drags his wife on a Moroccan vacation for reasons never explained to her or the audience. In the only scene between the couple before she is injured in the accident, Cate Blanchett presents Susan as a woman willing to do whatever it takes to overcome her husband’s stupor, unless it means drinking anything that’s not canned or eating anything containing fat.

In glitzy Tokyo, the deaf Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is still dealing with her mother’s suicide, and in some of the film's most unpredictable moments, she hopes to lose her virginity. Kikuchi displays a devastating mix of puberty-driven ferociousness and the innocence of a child plagued by a socially restrictive handicap. The most isolated of the storylines, Arriaga makes it engaging by providing the right amount of backstory to understand the motives behind each of her questionable actions. When Chieko is finally forced to reflect on the past year of her life, it makes for one of the most beautiful final shots in recent memory.

In a film full of great performances, the strongest belongs to Adrianna Barraza (Amores Perros), whose portrayal of a Mexican nanny trying to get a pair of American kids over the border and back again is intensified by the heartbreaking maternalism she uses to confront a kaleidoscope of threats. Clad in a depreciating red wedding dress, Barraza’s Amelia stammers through the desert to wave down a distant police vehicle. The tension is stiff, and when Amelia finally finds help, it quickly becomes the film’s most aggravating moment. The circumstances that lead Amelia to this point are debatable in their plausibility, but the dramatic payoff is enough to withstand her teary confusion. When the caretaker makes a rash, difficult decision involving the welfare of the children, it is clear she does so with good intentions.

Following 21 Grams, the narrative is surprisingly linear. Babel proves a more effective film because it keeps the main characters in separate storylines, although not everyone’s relation to the unifying event is as believable as those in the masterful Amores Perros (the connection between Chieko’s father and the rifle used in the shooting is awkward at best). And while the plot perhaps sets itself up too indiscreetly, the majority of the characters don’t wind up where you expect them to. In the end, the coincidences don’t prove too brash or tedious (think last year’s Crash), nor are they overly subtle (think any of Robert Altman’s multi-character epics). Iñárritu, rather, finds what none of his characters are able to: a happy, solemn medium. Michael Belkewitch
December 31, 2006



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