VOD film review: Babel
Simon Kinnear | On 27, Jun 2014Reading time: 4 mins
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi
Watch Babel online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Earlier this year, Alfonso Cuarón became the first Mexican director to win an Oscar, confirming the promise of the New Wave of Latin American directors since the Millennium. Gravity and space were the inevitable destination for the movement, not least because Babel (for which Alejandro González Iñárritu became the first Mexican to be nominated as Best Director) had already straddled the globe.
The third of Iñárritu’s collaborations with writer Guillermo Arriaga shares with their earlier films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) an interest in exploring the cause and effect of blind chance, and a fascination with unravelling the form of cinema itself. Like Amores Perros, this follows several stories orbiting around a freak accident; but like 21 Grams, the order of events is scrambled chronologically and, now, also geographically.
Babel’s globetrotting, multi-lingual disassociation follows three stories: in Morocco, holidaymaker Susan Jones (Blanchett) is shot by a local kid; back in America, Jones’ children are dragged to Mexico by their nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) and her volatile nephew (Bernal) to attend her son’s wedding; meanwhile, in Japan, we’re introduced to deaf teenager Chieko (Kikuchi) – but how does her story relate to the others?
The result has the feel of a modern day take on silent classic Intolerance, a state of the world address warning of the need for greater communication in the global village. Tourism and economic migration might be bringing nations closer together than ever before, but there remains mistrust and hostility. And, in a subtle critique of the world order, the various plot resolutions prove that it’s the Third World participants – never the Americans – who come out worst.
These are relevant, resonant themes but, as the choice of title suggests, there’s more than a touch of pretension to the telling. Calling the film Babel is very cute but never feels truly convincing as the umbrella for all of these tales: the prime reason that there’s a lack of communication here is that hardly any of the characters meet. There’s no doubting that Arriaga is a brilliant writer of short stories – taut, anxious studies of chaos – but nothing to really justify sticking them together.
You get the feeling of jigsaw pieces hammered together to prove a pattern that probably isn’t there. Simultaneously, the film suffers from being too connected (what are the odds that the Jones’ kids would go through their own near-tragedy?) and too tenuous (the link to involve the Japanese story, and thus complete the film’s Phileas Fogg circumnavigation, is stretching the point a bit too far).
That it more or less works is due to Iñárritu’s passionate belief in the one language that really can cross borders: cinema. His filming – lucid and instant – is brilliantly organised into a persuasive tapestry by editor Stephen Mirrione, who has experience in this kind of multi-strand narrative from Traffic. Like 21 Grams, any criticisms directed at the bigger picture are deflected by the brilliance of the film during any given moment, be it the desperate stand-off between Susan’s husband Richard (Pitt) with unsympathetic fellow tourists as his wife lays dying, a visit to the strange new world of a nightclub from Chieko’s soundless perspective, or – best of all – a nail-biting border crossing.
The director’s spur-of-the-moment technique draws bold, attention-grabbing performances across the board: everybody is in a constant state of heightened emotion. Pitt (always best under strong direction) is a study in pent-up grief and frustration, while Oscar-nominated Kikuchi by necessity conveys her turmoil with a silent scream. Meanwhile, Bernal has a ball channelling his cheeky, impetuous persona into an unsympathetic role and Blanchett delivers a masterclass in how to act being shot (well, if that’s all you need, you may as well hire the best). Best of all is Barraza (another Oscar nominee), very moving as the decent woman scarcely able to comprehend the callous indifference of international bureaucracy. It’s her plight more than any other that really nails the anger and intelligence Iñárritu only hints at elsewhere.