Babel: Brad Pitt Stars in Global Thriller by Mexican Director Inarritu

Cannes Film Festival 2006 (World Premiere–Linking personal identities and global politics in a thematically intriguing and emotionally compelling way, “Babel,” Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s third feature, is his most commercial film to date.

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.

Receiving its world premiere as a competition entry at the 2006 Festival de Cannes, “Babel” was greeted with huge applause and the kind of deeply emotional response seldom witnessed in Cannes. The yarn’s last scene, an emotionally moving reunion between two disparate family members, has reduced many viewers to tears.

With the right handling and savvy marketing, Paramount Vantage/Paramount Classics 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”).

Harsh critics may charge with some degree of validity that the storytelling is contrived and a bit manipulative, especially in the way that the Japanese story is linked to the other, more logically 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.

“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, emotionally, and technically, “Babel” is more gripping, 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 on a whim by two boys in the Moroccan deserts, leads to an international political scandal and personal tragedy of the highest order, involving an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) traveling in Morocco, a sensitive Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) who takes care of their 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.

Using the same strategy of interlocking parallel tales and the same melodramatic mode (here more excessively) of his previous pictures, “Babel” boasts a broader scope and more ambitious goal. New movie deals with the core problem 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 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” shows continuity in Innaritu’s thematic concerns, namely, the vulnerability and fragility of human beings in today’s paranoid and terror-ridden world as they try to communicate across geographical borders and language barriers 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 and grief, and ultimately reunion and redemption.

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 Susan (Blanchett), who vacation in the Muslim country of Morocco. From the outside, they look like a couple that’s physically lost in the far and exotic desert, while in reality, they are emotionally lost. We quickly find out that their marital strain derives from the loss of a child, a tragedy for which each partner blames the other and from which neither has recovered.

Susan 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 their goats from jackals, fire a shot that hits her while leaning against the bus’ window. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no phones or hospitals in sight, Richard and Susan are at the mercy of their peers on the tour bus (impatient to leave the place for fear of another terrorists attack) and also dependent on the help of the local villagers (an old woman and a kind veterinarian), who live a primitive life by Western technological standards.

A second tale revolves around a Mexican nanny, Amelia (Barraza), working illegally for Richard and Susan in San Diego amidst the wealth of California. Under pressure to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico, and ill-advised by her nephew Santigao (Bernal), Amelia makes the fatal mistake of bringing the two American kids illegally across the border. After a celebratory evening, heading back home, the foursome are stopped at the border and become victims of ruthless patrolmen. The hot-tempered Santiago, after one too many drinks, makes a bad choice and drops Amelia and the children, while trying to escape from the chasing police.

The film’s most au courant issuereflecting Bush’s inconsistent and hypocritical immigration policyis Amelia’s story, framed as a fable that sums up the situation of thousands of Mexicans who cross the American border and face the double standards set by both the Mexican and American governments. A symbol of numerous “invisible” citizens, Amelia is left to her destiny, unprotected by immigration laws in either country. The fact that she has lived with the American couple for 11 years and raised their children means nothing to the authorities.

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, Chieko falls into sexual extremes as a way of making up for genuine affection.

There are two or three scenes, in which the girl tries to seduce boys in the cafeteria, and later a handsome Japanese cop, by stripping nude or exposing her genitalia in public. Using Cheiko’s subject POV, Innaritu illustrates what it means to be deaf-mute in a busy disco by alternating loud music with complete silence, a device that yields sharp dramatic effect.

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

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

Significantly, in “Babel,” miscommunication is not a philosophical notion in a Jean Paul Sartre’s existential mode, but in a more realistic, vividly illustrating the notions of isolation and alienation as they apply to our everyday lives. “Babel” is not an abstract or allegorical movie about how difficult or impossible it is to communicate, but about how values, stereotypes, and prejudices are much more divisive 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 intimate partners (wives, children, friends), and within ourselves.

In each of his films, Innaritu has placed personal stories about parents and children within larger socio-political contexts. On some theoretical level, the geo-political international thriller “Syriana” is similar in scope to “Babel.” Yet what was dry, journalistic, remote, and emotionless in “Syriana,” becomes personal, melodramatic and gripping in “Babel,” a film that offers so many compelling figures that almost any viewer would be able to find a character to guide him through the maze.

Finally, “Babel” explores effectively the inherent contradiction between the popular perception of the world as a place that seemingly 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.