“The brightest lights on the darkest nights”
The final piece to Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga’s unofficial trilogy has finally reached theatres. Babel is a sprawling tale spanning multiple countries and languages as a lone gunshot leaves reverberations throughout the world, interfering with the lives of many people who at first glance are seemingly unrelated. These two men, director and writer respectively, have crafted two previous masterpieces with themes of love and sorrow, pain and redemption. From Amores Perros and 21 Grams, we are shown a steady progression of style and scale. While many are on the fence about Iñárritu’s quality as an auteur being that Arriaga has written each of his directorial efforts, (while having success on his own, writing the wonderful The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for Tommy Lee Jones), I believe they will have to take notice with this brilliant tale. Yes, the script is top-notch—a pitch-perfect use of verbal economy—however, the visual style has finally stepped up to the plate here as the director took control and beautifully orchestrated scenes, effectively disarming the audience on a totally visceral level. It may not be the teams finest, the scale might have stretched them a bit thin, however, the emotions are epic and the storylines true, once again creating what could be the best film of the year.
We live in a world split into different ways of life. Our cultures can seem behind the times to others or too advanced for their own good to more. Babel helps show us the many details that go into the everyday lives of Moroccans, Mexicans, Japanese, and Americans abroad. As with his previous films, Iñárritu shoots close up and kinetically. We see the food sticking to the Moroccan family’s fingers as they eat from a community bowl, the sweat forming from the sweltering Mexican heat, and the bright lights and sterile feel to a Japanese city along with its rambunctious youth culture raving behind the curtains. Through all the differences, though, this tale shows us the common thread of humanity which lies deep down in us all, proving that no matter our ethnicity or language, we are all here to live amongst each other as men and women.
A gunshot is fired out of the immaturity of youth not thinking before they act. The mistake was made in the desert hills of Morocco, yet was felt many miles away in all directions. Because the victim was an American it is automatically looked upon as terrorism. The government knows it has eradicated terrorist factions from its country and needs to show they will do all that is necessary to catch the culprits. In the meantime, the shooting causes the American couple to be unable to come home for there kids which allows for the harmless decision of their nanny to take the children across the border to Mexico for her son’s wedding. What appears as a small trip soon has dire consequences as her ignorance to the laws and paperwork at the border supercede any thoughts of good will she has for seeing her son married while still protecting the children under her care. The story does not end there as we also look into the life of a young deaf-mute Japanese girl who’s visit by the police stirs up memories of her mother’s suicide and need for love in her life.
Iñárritu and Arriaga have given us inventive story structure in the past by allowing us to see instances multiple times, from different vantage points. Amores Perros told three stories that were connected by an event shown from each story’s arc and 21 Grams jumped through time to show the interconnecting of its’ three characters’ lives. With Babel it appears as though he has gone with a straightforward narrative until we finally get the reveal of when each story takes place in relation to the others. While only necessary in a logistical capacity rather than a stylistic choice, the abandoning of the “gimmick”, for lack of a better term, frees him to wow us in other ways. What he chooses to do instead is barrage our eyes with powerful moments of acting without words. Like on his previous films, the score enhances moments in between the action enormously with loud strings and other orchestral instruments superimposed on the silent moments depicted on screen. Because of the many languages, Iñárritu is free to use this technique often as actions speak louder than words. We are led through the story by sight and sound without the use of language to guide us. Emotions are humanity’s common ground in terms of understanding and Babel uses them as a language in and of itself.
The utter silence is a main factor to the phenomenal performances across the board. Actors aren’t screaming or posing for the cameras, but instead softly trying to make it through the hardships of life. Cate Blanchett is great in a role where body language is key and along with Brad Pitt, (finally being given the chance to show he is more than just a fast-talking leading man type, but also a talented actor—one could say his own fault especially after leaving a passion project of Darren Aronofsky’s caliber for the great failure that was Troy, thankfully Hugh Jackman saved the day and four years later The Fountain will finally be released in a couple of weeks—but I digress), shows the pain of loss and that of love when your future is uncertain. Pitt is a revelation and does his best work since his off-the-wall role in 12 Monkeys, playing the exact opposite here, a fallen man, subtle and nuanced to perfection.
Playing one of the Moroccan boys, Boubker Ait El Caid is immensely talented for a young kid, taking his character from a child to a man in mere hours of storyline. The evolution is true to form and the way he shows how his fear drives his actions is remarkable. Rinko Kikuchi is amazing, showing a range of emotions that run the gamut, all while being deaf to the world. Her isolation from life itself and how she thinks she needs to act in order to overcome it is heart wrenching. Credit Iñárritu for his help in getting her feelings across, especially in the fantastic nightclub scene with all the lights, projections, and sound filling the air yet cutting abruptly to silence as we are shown what confusion really is for this girl, who can’t fully enjoy or understand the actions of those dancing around her. All the actors in the Mexican sub-story do great work as well with cameos from the always reliable Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Peña, and Gael García Bernal. However, the star here is Adriana Barraza and the evolution her character takes. From the helplessness of possibly missing her son’s wedding, to the joy of seeing that moment, to the responsibility of needing to get the children back, to the utter loss of all conscious thought as she must protect the children from the mistakes she has unknowingly made.
As with the previous collaborations, Babel is not for people who don’t like feeling emotionally vulnerable. If you come out of the film without having felt something, maybe you aren’t human. No matter what language or culture defines you, all those conventions are superceded by the raw emotion shown here. This is life on screen—every painful moment and joyous instance. Emotion is the universal connection binding us all and Iñárritu and Arriaga have their fingers on the pulse of it, harnessing it for all to experience. Arriaga will soon be trying his hand in directing and Iñárritu will be branching off to create work with other collaborators. Hopefully we will be treated to films even better than the ones they have given us, however, I can only hope that down the road a project will bring them together again for one more masterpiece of cinema for the heart.
Babel 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★
© 2007, Courtesy of Paramount Vantage.