Oscar 2006: Innaritu's Towering Babel–First Oscar Contender out of Cannes

Cannes Film Fest, May 26, 06–The 2006 Oscar race has begun in the Festival de Cannes with the world premiere of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's “Babel.” Impressively mounted, Innaritu's multi-layered epic links personal identities and global politics in a thematically intriguing and emotionally compelling way.

While specifically grounded in American culture of the post 9/11 era, “Babel” embraces the whole world, touching on a wide array of contemporary issues, including illegal immigration from Mexico, First Vs. Third World Countries, culture collision between East and West, the impact of the gun culture.

Whether ” Babel” wins major awards from the Cannes jury remains to be seen, but of all the movies I have seen in the festival, particularly the American and English-speaking ones, “Babel” is the one that will matter in the American market when it's released in October.

“Babel,” Innaritu's third feature, is his most ambitious and most commercial film to date. The film is not perfect, yet I can't think of another movie that reflects so vividly the zeitgeist and at the same time is so emotionally gripping. Receiving its premiere as a competition entry at Cannes, “Babel” was greeted with huge applause and the kind of deeply emotional response seldom witnessed in Cannes.

With the right handling and savvy marketing, Paramount Vantage/Paramount Classic has a major winner that should reap awards at year's end, including Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actors (Brad Pitt and Mexican Adriana Barraza), and technical categories for a supremely mounted movie, lensed by Rodrigo Prieto, designed by Brigitte Broch, and scored by Oscar-winner Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain”).

Working on a larger canvas and with a bigger budget (around $25 million), the film, co-scripted by regular collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, completes Innaritu's trilogy that began six years ago with the highly acclaimed Mexican “Amores Perros” and continued with the well-received American-made “21 Grams” in 2003.

Since “Babel” is part of trilogy, comparison to the other segments is in order. One way to distinguish “Babel” is to say that it's made for audiences rather than critics, unlike his stunning debut, “Amores Perros,” which entranced critics but few viewers saw, despite the fact that it was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar. By labeling “Babel” viewers-friendly, I don't mean to suggest that it's compromising or pandering to the audience. Nonetheless, watching the film, I got the sense that Innaritu wanted to make an emotionally accessible work that would touch the hearts of culturally diverse viewers.

Harsh critics may charge with some degree of validity that the storytelling is contrived and even manipulative, especially in the way that the Japanese story is linked to the other, more integrated segments. Yet, there's so much to praise about “Babel” that the film's weaknesses are easily neutralized, if not entirely overcome, by its achievements.

In goal and scope, “Babel” recalls Stephen Gaghan's geopolitical international thriller “Syriana,” which divided critics and audiences. But narratively and stylistically, the two works are very different. “Syriana” was provocative ideologically, espousing some Big Ideas and theses, yet the film was journalistic, dry, and lacking relatable human characters to help viewers navigate through its complex and complicated labyrinthine maze. Driven by plot, “Syriana” was perceived by many as an academic thesis that, with the exception of one of two characters (George Clooney's CIA agent), lacked fullt fleshed individual characters.

“Babel” is exactly the opposite. Sacrificing plot for strong and recognizable characters, the movie may be more conventional, but it's also more intense, tense, and involving than “Syriana.” “Babel” is a political melodrama about everyday people and their mundane lives, be they in the Moroccan deserts herding sheep, in San Diego tending young kids, or in Tokyo, where a bereft father tries to connect with his deaf-mute daughter after the loss of her mother.

It's interesting to note that structurally, in both “Babel” and “Syriana,” the unifying principle of the story is that of the family unit, or more specifically parents in children. Yet, while “Syriana” was mostly about fathers and sons, “Babel” expands the range to include mothers and sons (the American and Mexican segments) and fathers and daughters (the Japanese story), along with fathers and sons (the Moroccan tale).

“Babel” may not be Innaritu's best film–I am still partial to “Amores Perros” (“Life's a Bitch”), perhaps because it represented a feature debut that came out of nowhere, so to speak. Nonetheless, narratively and technically, “Babel” is more touching and accomplished than “21 Grams,” which, despite excellent acting from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Torro, was overwrought and suffered from its time-jumping puzzle-like structure.

A single rifle shot, fired by accident and on a whim by two boys in the Moroccan deserts, leads to an international political scandal and personal tragedies of the highest order, involving an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette) traveling in Morocco, a sensitive Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) who takes care of their young kids and her irresponsible nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal), and a Japanese family of a single father and rebellious daughter in the far and remote Tokyo.

“Babel” tackles head-on the core problems of contemporary life in the post 9/11 era: lack of communication. The apt title refers to the biblical notion of people speaking different languages and unable to establish human communication. It's hard to think of another film that demonstrates so vividly and so touchingly the thesis of six degrees of separation.

Shot in three countries (Mexico, Japan, and Morocco) and in four languages (English is the fourth), “Babel” demonstrates continuity in Innaritu's thematic concerns, namely, the vulnerability and fragility of human beings in today's paranoid and terrorists-ridden world as they try to communicate across language barriers and geographical borders in Third-World countries. Separated by clashing cultures and sprawling distances, each of the four disparate groups is hurtling towards a shared destiny of isolation, grief, and ultimately redemption.

Limited space doesn't permit me to dwell in detail on each of the characters. Take, for example, the troubled married American couple Richard (Pitt) and Rachel (Blanchette), who vacation in the Muslim country of Morocco. From the outside, they look like a couple that's physically lost in the desert, while in reality, they are emotionally lost. We quickly find out that their marital strain stems from having lost a child, a tragedy for which each blames the other and from which neither has recovered.

Rachel becomes an innocent victim, when two Mexican brothers, trying to test the range of the new rifle given to them by their father to protect the goat from jackals, fire a shot that hits Rachel, while leaning against the bus' window. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no phones or hospitals in sight, they are at the mercy of their peers on the tour bus (impatient to leave the place for fear of another attack), and are dependent on the help of the local villagers who live a primitive life by Western technological standards.

A second tale revolves around a Mexican nanny, Amelia (Barraza) working for the couple in San Diego amidst the wealth of California. Under pressure to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, and ill-advised by her nephew, Amelia makes the fatal mistake of bringing the two American kids illegally across the border. Au courantdue to Bush's inconsistent and hypocritical immigration policyAmelia's story is framed as a fable that sums up the situation of thousands of Mexicans trying to cross the American border and facing the double standard set by both the Mexican and American governments. Amelia thus becomes an “invisible” citizen, left to her destiny, unprotected by fair immigration laws by both countries.

A third story focuses on a widowed Japanese father (vet actor Koji Yokusho), trying to emotionally connect with his deaf-mute daughter (newcomer Rinko Kikuchi) in the midst of the intensely urban setting of Tokyo. Victimized and ostracized, and still suffering the loss of a mother who committed a suicide, the girl falls into sexual extremes as a way of making up for affection. There are two or three extremely moving scenes, in which she tries to seduce boys and later a Japanese cop by stripping nude, or exposing her genitalia in public.

The film's central metaphor is that of loss, both physical and emotional. In the tightly-controlled storyset over two dayseach of the characters is forced to face the dizzying sensation of being profoundly lost: lost in the desert, lost in a senseless world of politics, and most painfully, lost to themselves.

In the hands of Arriaga, an adept and shrewd screenwriter, all of the characters are first pushed to the edges of confusion and fear, and then are pushed back to the depth of connection and love. Arriaga and Innaritu demonstrate how a whimsical personal act ricochets into an international scandal with immediate suspicions of terrorism, due to the inflammatory and incendiary times in which we live and breathe.

What's good about “Babel” is that its theme of miscommunication is not philosophical or existential, but utterly realistic, dwelling on isolation and alienation as they apply to our everyday lives. “Babel” is not an abstract movie about how difficult or impossible it is to communicate, but about how values, stereotypes, and prejudices divide human beings much more than physical borders or linguistic barriers.

The film says that you don't have to be lost in the Moroccan desert or in the middle of Tokyo's Shibuya district to feel isolated. The most terrifying loneliness is the one we experiment with our close partners (wives, children, and friends)–and within ourselves.

In each of his films, Innaritu has placed intimate stories about parents and children and inevitable generational gaps within larger political contexts. With “Babel,” he explores the inherent contradiction between the popular perception of the world as getting smaller and more intimate, due to new and sophisticated tools of communication, and the equally strong sense that as humans we still can't express ourselves and communicate with each other at the most fundamental level.

It's only May and far too early to start the Oscar guessing game, but I doubt if we will see as many thematically ambitious, emotionally gripping, and politically relevant movies as “Babel” in the months to come.