Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, Kôji Yakusho, Elle Fanning
There is a fine line between making a compelling masterpiece that actually has something profound to say, and a movie that is merely pretentious and preachy. In my opinion, Alejandro González Iñárritu has managed to walk that line with his latest film Babel.
I can certainly understand why people might be skeptical or intimidated by this movie before they’ve seen it; the trailer made it very clear that there is a lot going on with its multiple storylines, multiple characters and multiple locales, all organized around a single theme. And that theme is: “If you want to be understood… listen”. If you’re scratching your head and wondering what the hell that’s supposed to mean, then maybe this movie isn’t for you. But if you know exactly what Inarritu is getting at, chances are you’ll find this movie a brilliant and moving meditation on the world today (or maybe you won’t, but you’ll still enjoy it anyway).
Keeping in sync with 2 of his previous films (of which, I have only seen the wonderful 21 Grams), Inarritu has carefully composed a number of interconnected storylines with which to make his point. The primary storyline stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as tourists in Morocco; Blanchett (somewhat) accidentally gets shot by a Moroccan youngster while on a tour bus, and Pitt struggles to find her medical help in the middle of the desert. We also get a glimpse of the other side of this story, as we follow the kids who are responsible for shooting Blanchett, and their attempt to hide the mistake from their father.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., 2 kids are taken by their Mexican babysitter to attend her son’s wedding south of the border. Problems ensue when they attempt to cross the border back into the U.S. later that night, leading to a high speed chase. Lastly, over in Japan, we meet a young deaf girl who is lonely and desperate to be loved. Her mother committed suicide and her father is away on business a lot of the time.
Each of the storylines could have very well made an intriguing movie unto itself; one of my only disappointments was that I wish I could have spent more time getting to know each of the characters. However, this speaks volumes about the quality of the storytelling here. Sometimes in a high concept movie (like Crash, for example), the characters clearly feel like pawns used to get across the filmmaker’s message. In Babel, I was completely absorbed in each story, to the point where I also felt a bit frustrated when I was suddenly yanked out of one thread to pick up on another.
I think some people are unfairly biased against movies with multiple storylines as of late, perhaps because they begrudge Crash for winning at the Oscars last year, or perhaps because the connections between the stories are quite often too forced or coincidental to take seriously. In Babel, the connections between the storylines were admittedly tenuous at best. I think they could have worked even better just left as separate stories since they were still connected thematically, but I suppose that might have been confusing for some people.
Each piece of the movie is a cautionary tale about language barriers, communication breakdown and misunderstandings; this much is obvious when you consider that a lot of the movie is subtitled (on top of the various foreign languages, you even have sign language in the mix as well). This central theme seemed quite powerful to me, especially now that we’re at a point in the world where the internet is closing all geographical boundaries and different cultures are colliding together like never before. Maybe this is the pretentious part that people get freaked out over, but aside from that, this movie is also about how quickly a situation can get out of hand and unravel all around us if we’re not careful. The tension and anxiety conveyed throughout the film was palpable, and at the very least I thought this alone was enough to make for a gripping film, regardless of the underlying theme.
To be honest, I’m not surprised a lot of people are calling Babel overrated, and probably part of it has to do with the fact that Alejandro González Iñárritu has made movies like this before, and it feels on the surface to be a very calculated film. It doesn’t help that a huge star like Brad Pitt is involved either, making it seem like blatant Oscar bait. I had my own suspicions about whether or not this movie would live up to its own claims of grandeur, but for me, this was a movie that delivered exactly what was promised. It bothers me that people seem to enjoy slapping down ambitious filmmaking like this lately, because to me this is what all directors should be striving for. It was thoughtful, visually stunning, and worthy of recognition as one of the best (if not the best) movie of the year. — Sean