The interconnectedness of all human life—and how ignoring this fact can cause us to perceive the universe as being heartlessly random in design—is not only the overarching theme of Babel, the latest chronologically fractured opus from Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, but also the slender thread of gristle that holds it together. The movie follows four different stories of families in crisis across three continents and seven languages, giving Iñárritu the opportunity to play with a dizzying array of emotional textures, visceral experiences, and colorful locations. This isn’t a film that can be judged as either being more or less than the sum of its many parts. The fact that these parts remain a barely understood cacophony at the very end might be the point. Whether that’s a flawed design or a painful lesson is something I cannot determine.
There are some people, I’m sure, who will want to see Babel as a cinematic attempt to understand where globalization will take us in the 21st century, when relying on other countries more economically can hold us at the mercy of the tiniest fluctuations of their political and social orders. Or as a fatalistic screed about how small errors in judgment can spiral into personal tragedies thanks to influences beyond our ken. But the power of Iñárritu’s poetry lies in its refusal to be reduced to a single message, even if it means that some of the pieces of this puzzle are less effective than others.
In what might be called the film’s central narrative (at least to the degree that it affects the others), Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are Richard and Susan, an American couple vacationing in Morocco. Neither one seems particularly happy to be there, but it’s an escape from their everyday life and thus a chance to repair their failing marriage. Meanwhile, the two young sons of a Moroccan farmer go out playing with their father’s new rifle and, not realizing its firing range, accidentally target a tourist bus. Back in the United States, Amelia, the illegal immigrant nanny of Richard and Susan’s children, takes a road trip back to Mexico in order to see her son’s wedding. She can’t find a replacement babysitter, so she brings the children with her. And in what initially seems to be a wholly disconnected storyline, a deaf-mute Japanese girl named Chieko prowls the Tokyo nightlife in search of meaningful human connection, or failing that, just a chance to get laid.
Unfortunately, of the quartet of storylines I found the Richard and Susan one to be the least compelling. After Susan is struck by a stray bullet, Richard must frantically care for her when the nearest hospital is hours away, and the next-best care consists of an old woman in a dirty hut who agrees to sew up the wound. It’s hard for me to put my finger on what doesn’t work here, but I think it’s simply that this narrative is the least suited to Iñárritu’s hyperkinetic style and the film’s own elliptical structure. We’re told that Richard briefly abandoned the family after their third child died, but it’s not enough to keep these two from feeling like well-worn types: the Ugly American wife and the can’t-deal-with-his-emotions husband. Susan angrily refuses to even drink a Coke if the ice in the glass has come from the country’s water supply—a not very subtle way of foreshadowing that she’ll be forced to endure far greater dangers to her well-being before the trip is over. And Richard seems to oscillate between only two emotional poles: the sinking fear that he’s completely powerless, and an angry defiance at this realization.
Iñárritu is more successful when he’s given the freedom to move around and show us the larger rhythms of life that his characters are swept up in. Amelia’s son’s wedding, an all-day party held in massive tents in the middle of the warm Mexican weather, is seen as a jubilant montage of food, music, and tender humanity: Amelia makes love to an old friend, now a widower, who has clearly had feelings for her for some time.
But that’s nothing compared to an electrifying sequence halfway through the movie when Chieko and her friends drink whiskey and take ecstasy in a public park, and then wander towards a Tokyo nightclub. The scene almost makes ecstasy look like such good, clean fun that it’s enough to single-handedly undo a lifetime’s worth of D.A.R.E.-sponsored school assemblies and “Just Say No” commercials. The girls and boys shuffle through the park with a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes as they splash each other in fountains and play on a mock pirate ship. At one point, the camera just holds on Chieko and the slow, steady rhythm of her laughter as she glides back and forth on a swingset, and watches this unhappy young girl finally get a taste of the sort of frivolous fun that every teenager craves is magical.
The group heads out to a rave in Tokyo, and it’s here that the visceral and intellectual levels of Babel fully converge: Iñárritu cuts between an objective point-of-view of the club, its bodies gyrating to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” (a clever nod to how much of Japanese pop culture is appropriated from the West), and Chieko’s own perception of the rave set to an eerie, empty silence, a literal and symbolic deafness, as she watches her best friend hungrily kiss one of the boys they’ve brought along with them while nobody pays attention to her. Without doing anything as condescending as spelling it out for us, the film uses just sound and images to drive home the sad, inescapable knowledge that we’re always locked inside the prison of our own perceptions, and we’ll never really know what’s outside them.
Iñárritu allows for enough subtlety in Babel to sneak some trenchant observations into the margins of the film. A news report states that the US government has determined Susan’s shooting to be a terrorist attack and is pressuring the Moroccan authorities to hold someone responsible, another example of Americans ready to pick a fight without knowing all the facts. And when a shadowy Moroccan law enforcement official goes about finding who the shooter was, he’s not above shooting at fleeing children or beating an old man halfway to death just to intimidate him into giving up information. Clearly, no one can afford to incur America’s wrath.
With a movie that encompasses international relations, broken families, personal epiphanies, romantic longings, painful secrets, and our constant aching need for human connection, Iñárritu might have bitten off more than he could chew. Babel seems perfectly designed to inspire a stoned, late-night discussion about the meaning of life, with everyone in the room taking a different view of how its myriad pieces fit together. I admired most of the film’s pieces more than I enjoyed them, with the exception of Chieko’s touching nighttime odyssey for love and physical affection. In a jumble of voices, hers is the one that calls out to us and demands to be heard.
Note: The DVD’s only special features are a theatrical trailer and a handful of previews.