Alejandro González Iñárritu has established himself as a raw and powerful filmmaker. While he doesn't have a lot of films under his belt he definitely showed us what he can do with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Iñárritu's friend and screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, has also established himself as a great writer. Arriaga is a great storyteller who does his best work when he writes in a non-linear fashion. The two match up perfectly and deliver us a raw, powerful, and emotional experience with Babel. The premise is an interesting one; how does one event affect people in three different locations around the world? The idea alone would cause any writer a headache just trying to make it work, but Iñárritu and Arriaga make it work almost perfectly.
A Japanese hunter travels to Morocco and gives his rifle to his hunting guide as a present and a token of thanks. This hunting guide then sells the gun to a local man who herds goats in a small villiage. He leaves the gun with his sons and tells them to fend off any Jackals that try to kill the goats. While they are testing the gun the kids are convinced that the bullets don't go far, so they shoot at a tour bus that is driving down the road and think that nothing happens all until the bus swerves to a stop and panic ensues. An American couple on vacation (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are now in peril after the wife is shot during the incident. In the middle of nowhere it is pure chaos as the husband does everything in his limited power to save his wife. This incident now directly affects a Mexican woman back in San Diego, who is the housekeeper of the American couple in Morocco. Due to the incident, she is left with the kids in San Diego, but needs to leave to attend her son's wedding in Mexico. Without anybody to look after the kids she takes them along and things go from good to horribly bad as they try to cross back into the United States. Back in Japan we deal with the daughter of the Japanese hunter, who is deaf-mute. The Japanese storyline has the least to do with the central storyline, but is important nonetheless. This deaf girl lives a life of always being judged and ignored by people and only has her close friends who are also deaf-mute. She deals with sexual frustration since no man ever wants to even spend time with her, so she feels unloved and alone. These are the storylines.
The film switches back and forth between the storylines, but not in a linear fashion. We will see a section of one storyline and then jump back a bit to see the other one. So, simply, the screen is not split into thirds so we cannot see each storyline at the same time. We will see a part of one storyline, but during that time the other storylines are occurring so we need to jump back in time to catch up the other storylines. It may sound confusing, but trust me it really isn't. This film is incredibly easy to follow, and thankfully that allows the emotional impact to be so much greater. What I love about Inarritu and Arriaga is that they know the fundamental rule of film, and that is to "show, don't tell". They know that film is a visual medium and that's how they tell the story. The dialogue is minimal in the film, and there are many shots of people, faces, expressions, settings, etc. They really bring you to the different locations. The film is shot in the documentary "shakey" camera style, shot mostly or even all on digital from what I could tell. Although there were a few scenes that looked like it could have been film, so I'm not too sure about it. Anyway, the style works to captivate the audience completely. Some moments are so full of emotion that it will bring you to cry and tremble. The film is a dark and depressing look at the human condition, the way we have separated ourselves in our own respective cultures and how that causes conflict and friction. The film is also enhanced greatly by Gustavo Santaolalla's subtle and powerful score. Personally, I absolutely hated Brokeback Mountain's score and thought that it winning the Oscar was a travesty. However, I absolutely loved this score, it was truly phenomenal. Usually scores in films like these are not thematic, but this score was incredibly thematic and does wonders to enhance the visuals. Look for another Santaolalla nomination this year.
The Japanese storyline shows us that even in our own culture, the lack of communication completely isolates us. In a powerful scene we see the Japanese girl walk into a pulse pounding night club where the music is blasting and people are dancing. We switch back and forth from the girl's perspective where all we hear is silence. The scene evolves into an epileptic assault on the audience's senses, the scene goes way too long to make its point. It was the only scene I did not like in the entire film. Going to the Mexican storyline, we spend a lot of time at the wedding, lots of drinking and dancing. Then when the housekeeper tries to cross back into the states and she doesn't have a parent letter of permission things become scary. The main storyline back in Morocco is also harrowing. We see the impact on the Moroccan family where the sons are responsible for the shooting. There are some points in the film where you will be truly shaken to your core. Each storyline compliments the other one and communicates the same thing and that is that humans construct barriers to separate ourselves, but no matter how disconnected we may seem we all live on the same planet and we all affect each other.
Brad Pitt is labeled as the lead actor in the film, but there is not one actor that carries the film. Each storyline is headlined by different actors, and every single person who appears on screen in this film portrays incredibly real human emotion. Brad Pitt was stunning in the film, and Cate Blanchett was amazing as well. Adriana Barraza plays the Mexican housekeeper and I think she gives the best performance in the entire film. If the Academy does not nominate her performance then there is something seriously wrong with the voters. Some film enthusiasts will notice a few short roles by some famous people. Michael Peña (Crash, World Trade Center) has a small role as a Border Control officer, and Clifton Collins Jr. (Capote) plays another Border Control officer. For those who think the little girl who plays the daughter of Brad Pitt's and Cate Blanchett's characters looks familiar, she should look familiar. The little girl is played by Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning's little sister. Rinko Kikuchi plays Chieko, the deaf-mute Japanese girl. This young actress also gives a stunning and magnificent performance that should be recognized at the Oscars. Riveting performances all come together to communicate these stories
If you want to be compelled by a film, then Babel is the film to see. This is what a great film is. If you want to see masterful directing and writing then this is the perfect example, if you want to see stunning acting then this is the perfect example, but there were a few problems in the editing that bothered me enough to knock down half a star. This film needs to be experienced, so do yourself a favor and see it.