Babel review by Tom Blain
With the academy awards right around the corner, one of the movies I was most curious about was Babel. Ensemble cast (with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett how could you go wrong?), an acclaimed director in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams director), and stories sprawling over the globe with a single connection. The preview did a good job talking about how in biblical times, the people were spread about the earth with different languages so they couldnt understand each other. This, I soon found out, is only part of what Babel is about.
Babel is a film about four loosely connected stories. The main story is about two young Moroccan boys named Yussef and Ahmed, who receive a rifle from their father in order to protect their goats from jackals. They live in a fairly isolated, mountainous region of Morocco and begin doing what any young boys in an isolated region would do with a gun: shoot it at inanimate object in sight. Boys will be boys. One boy tries to out-do the other one and eventually they see a bus way off in the distance (maybe mile away). The younger brother wants to prove that he can use the gun like a man, shoots and hits the bus. That one shot is the catalyst that drives the rest of the stories in Babel as it affects the rest of the characters both directly and indirectly.
The characters affected most directly by the single gun shot are Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett). The two were on vacation in Morocco, running away from their problems (which were discussed in generalities at an un-cosey dinner). While on a tourist bus, Susan is struck by THE random bullet near her collarbone. Immediately everyone on the bus begins to panic. There isnt any major city around for dozens of miles let alone a good hospital. The nearest doctor is in a village about 30 minutes away but the rest of the tourists on the bus want to leave the area since the gun shot reeks of a terrorist attack. The third story takes place back in the states. The two children of Richard and Susan are being taken care of by their Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). She is in a difficult position as Richard and Susans return will be delayed for *unknown reasons* and Amelia needs to make it back to Mexico for her sons wedding. She makes one of those What could possibly go wrong? decisions and decides that she and her trusty nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) will take the children across the border in through Tijuana to her sons wedding. I mean seriouslywhen is that ever the right decision to take someone elses white kids into Mexico sans-permission? The fourth story has an even more indirect connection, which I wont spoil (although the connection is slightly disappointing). It takes place in Japan where Cheiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a teenage deaf-mute girl trying to fit in; as if puberty wasnt tough enough. She hates the fact that she is viewed as an outcast because of her disability and wants very much to be loved by a nice, attractive Japanese man. I repeat, wants very much. She is also still dealing with her mothers death which happened about a year earlier while her hardworking father (Koji Yakusho) is struggling to understand and raise his daughter on his own.
When a director ties all these stories together, there is usually an underlying theme. This theme is what gets tested within the different story telling environments to show comparisons and contrasts. The theme in Babel is value of life. A few of the main consistencies I saw between the stories is that white people are saved by helicopters and brown people are chased by SUVs. Beyond that, if you have a disability you may as well be invisible. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (which I will now cut and paste to avoid memorizing), makes it a point to show that although we are all the same people bleeding the same color blood and making the same types of mistakes we are all judged differently based on the color of our skin, country of origin, or language we speak. This message alone is not a News Flash but it does speak to what is going on in the world right now specifically within the U.S. One scene involves the treatment of the Moroccan children who are considered potential terrorists for accidentally shooting a U.S. woman, which of course speaks to the U.S./ Middle Eastern conflicts. At the same time the Mexican border story reflects about hot button issue number two in the U.S.: illegal immigration.
One of the more surprising things in Babel is the acting. I knew this would be an ensemble cast based on the credits and the number of crossing stories that would be told. What I didnt expect was to see that Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (and ask my wife, I adore her) would be extremely blah with very little character while every other actor put on a great performance. More so with Brad Pitt being boring than Cate, but still they were the least interesting of the entire movie. Everyone from the two boys, Bernal and Barraza, and the Japanese actors Kikuchi and Yakusho played very interesting roles with strong character depth. Pitt and Blanchett seemed to be very one-dimensional.
In rating Babel Im a bit torn. I like the themes of human value and the varying scale of importance that we put on a persons life given very subtle differences even if this theme has been played many times before. At least the route the director took to tell the story was somewhat intriguing. But at the same time the movie was flawed. Not all the parts fit together as easily as one would hope. Altman was the master at fitting together all the puzzle pieces. Even Soderburgh seems to pull this off from time to time. Its not to say that Inarritu did a horrible job, it just felt like a few of the stories were wedged together. Also its not a movie that stuck with me for as long as I would had hoped. Sometimes these potential Oscar winners bounce around in your head for weeks after seeing them. Babel should have had that affect but after the initial viewing and a little bit of thought, I laid the movie to rest. Still even with flaws, Babel is a very good movie and maybe one of the better films of the year.
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