Why did we come here?
— Susan (Cate Blanchett)
In Babel, communication is a mess, simultaneously stymied and urgent, banal and fraught. The film’s structure is grand, multiple stories stretched across the globe and time, their links eventually revealed in a kind of thematic crescendo. But its specific moments are often brilliant, little bits of intimacy made of color and light.
Like director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s previous films (Amores perros and 21 Grams), this one works like a too-clever puzzle, where causes and effects are at once elaborately detailed and oddly irrelevant. It hardly matters to a high school student in Tokyo that her father has indirectly affected a pair of white children lost in the southern California desert, and yet, the film instructs sincerely, even the abstract sense of such connection has weight — moral, political, and spiritual.
Associated by instances of violence, the stories in Babel all concern children caught up in circumstances beyond their easy comprehension, while adults struggle to maintain some semblance of illusory order. As the film begins, Richard (Brad Pitt) and his wife Susan (Cate Blanchett) have traveled to Morocco in an effort to “get over” a recent trauma, the loss of a child. They’ve left their other two children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), at home in San Diego, under care of their housekeeper Amelia (Adriana Barraza).
Tragedy strikes when a young goatherd, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), shoots at the Americans’ tourist bus, rambling through the mountains. Cautioned by his father Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) to keep the rifle hidden, Yussef is nonetheless intrigued by its possibilities, the sheer and abstract power it represents. And so he tracks the bus, his older brother Ahmed (Said Tarchani) beside him, neither boy imagining consequences or even that the unseen riders on the bus, marked “Tour du sud,” exist. The effect is immediate and unfathomable: Susan is shot in the neck, her pretty cotton blouse seeped through with dark blood, as Richard tries to contain calamity, his face twisted and suddenly purpled in horror.
Richard sets instantly and frantically to work: the bus pulls into the nearest village, where he uses a phone to call relatives, who call the embassy and the press in order to get a response (a white American warrants all kinds of special treatment, even in this remote area). As his fellow tourists worry that they too are endangered by the very strangeness of their environment, he insists they not leave him without transport. An ambulance should be coming, but no one can say exactly when; meantime, Susan bleeds and loses consciousness, rudimentary efforts by kind locals notwithstanding.
When Richard calls Amelia, he doesn’t disclose details, only that he and Susan are delayed. In turn, she doesn’t tell him her own need to travel to Mexico for her son’s wedding. Trying to manage conflicting demands, her solution appears both ridiculous and obvious: unable to find anyone else to look after the white children, she brings them along, an idea questioned even by her reckless nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal). Still, he drives them across the border; at the wedding, Mike and Debbie are both startled and charmed: revelers sing, dance, and shoot rifles into the air, the noise frightening but also thrilling, unlike anything they’ve heard before.
The gunshot in Morocco has more immediate and resounding effects. Moroccan police track the gun and then the shooter, hoping to quell suddenly fanned fears of “terrorism” and the international “incident” framed by journalists with digital cameras and little information. Yussef sees only threat, as the uniformed men in cars roust his family and beat his father, assuming motive and meaning, believing they might appease the outsiders whose dollars help sustain a rocky economy.
Across the world, in Tokyo, a high school student named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is struggling with her own sense of chaos and loss, brought on by her mother’s suicide. Rebelling against her too-often-absent father Yasujiro (Kôji Yakusho), Chieko, who is deaf, feels increasingly isolated. Thinking that her classmates see her as a “monster,” Chieko resents their ignorance and also longs for their approval. The movie renders her specific sensory experience in ways that seem sometimes gimmicky, at other times poignant, observing her from across a room, then taking her mostly soundless perspective. The abrupt shifts underline the film’s thematic investment in communication gaps, as Chieko’s endeavors to connect spiral out into a series of bad choices, though no worse than those made by other high school-aged girls in other movies.
Invited to hang out with some older boys, take some pills, and at last, go to a nightclub, Chieko goes along. One spectacular set-piece has her entering the club. As the scene cuts from her soundtrack to everyone else’s the camera cuts from her point of view (bodies and lights pulsing) to her face, close-up, captivated, and expectant. For young Chieko at this moment, all things seem possible, and in the next instant, when she feels betrayed by a girlfriend, her past and future collapse into one another.
Devastated, she tries once again to communicate, this time with a young policeman. She calls the number he has left earlier that day, when he came by trying to speak to her father — she presumes he wants still more information about her mother’s death, and offers a story about what she saw, hoping to move him with her details, her perspective, her needs. Their tentative moments together are more painful than promising, but they’re also perversely intimate.
As this connection is premised at least partly on instances of violence and their ongoing effects, Babel suggests that violence forges its own kind of language, a means to forge closeness across distances of experience, location, and time. The idea is more nuanced than any single film might hope to capture, and this one occasionally strains with the effort, its narrative and thematic links both contrived and tenuous.
And yet, scene for scene, the film is often thrilling: Amelia’s journey back and forth across borders with the white children is convoluted, but it leads to a single image — her red-dress glimpsed by a border patrol officer, a bizarre and poetic specter in the desert — that resonates quite beyond the limits of her plot, her lesson, and her utter shame. (Other bad choices have other sorts of consequences, though her lack of status in the U.S. is underlined by her emotional and official punishments.) Similarly, the stunning non-resolution of Chieko’s story — a note she writes to the young inspector, never revealed to the rest of us — lingers in the close-up of his face as he reads, his expression gentle and moved, perfectly elusive.