By Vince Rogers
Although separated by culture, class, and language, four families in Morocco, Mexico, Japan, and California are drawn together in Babel by a common connection to a .270 caliber rifle. This gun fires only one careless shot, but the force is felt around the world. The errant bullet enters the shoulder of Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American tourist traveling with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt), but the effects of that bullet reveal open wounds below the surface of all the characters and the weight of the different worlds they live in. Unfortunately, just like the bloody wound in her shoulder, none of the stories in this film are sewn up tidily, the cause and diagnosis of the injury is unclear, and the situation could benefit from the attention of more qualified professionals than were readily available.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the parties responsible for the hopelessly weighty film 21 Grams, are also responsible for this latest entry into the Soderberghian, Crashesque, existential angst, patchwork puzzle, “it’s a small world after all” school of filmmaking. When this type of formula works, it succeeds in showing how the tapestry of life and the delicate balance of human existence is all held together by an inescapable common thread. When it doesn’t work, it only succeeds in challenging the audience to try to remember what happened before, because the preceding, boring sequence made you forget to pay attention. However, the greatest failing of this film is not just that the story it tells is not compelling, but that the stories it decides not to tell would have been much more engaging.
Without giving away too much, or making a confusing story sound even more confusing, the plot of this story is either save the deaf Japanese school girl, save the world, or save the rich American tourist--I’m not sure which. Okay, maybe not. One thing is for sure though; the poor hard-working Mexican housekeeper and the Moroccan goat herder’s gun totin’ sons really get the shaft. It’s not clear whether we should blame the rich Americans for being rich and American, which is way too easy, or if we should blame the backwards gun-loving goat herders for being ignorant and backwards, which is just as problematic. What is clear, is that the story of the angst ridden, alienated, attention starved school girl or the dedicated, courageous Mexican housekeeper are much more compelling than the two hours where we watch the courageous American man demand that the world come to a screeching halt to take care of his wife’s shoulder wound in the midst of abject poverty and “Third World” despair. I guess the real question is what big name, box office drawing, middle aged Mexican, heavy set actress would have ever gotten the picture green-lighted.
The film’s opening scenes suggest that the audience is in store for an exploration of challenging global issues and thought provoking cultural conflicts. It does not deliver nor really attempt to broach the subjects. There are a few highly compelling scenes though. The scene in which we await the arrival of the stray bullet that sets the chaotic events in motion is a riveting display of the power that this sort of subtle filmmaking is capable of. However, except for this and a few other well-crafted moments and a soul-stirring, emotional display of despair in the final scenes, the film has few noteworthy moments. On balance, the film heightens our expectations more than it broadens our horizons. For those in the film-going public who have an unlimited appetite for the appearance of big named movie stars in “challenging” roles, the opportunity to see Messieur Pitt may be more than worth the price of admission. Despite it’s towering aspirations and its claims to examine the mystery of speaking in tongues, Babel’s treatment of some potentially very interesting material is more often than not, banal.
All photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures ©2006 . All Rights Reserved.