DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
BABEL (director/writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu; screenwriters: Guillermo Arriaga/based on an idea by Iñárritu and Arriaga; cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto; editors: Stephen Mirrione/Douglas Crise; music: Gustavo Santaolalla; cast: Brad Pitt (Richard Jones ), Cate Blanchett (Susan Jones), Gael García Bernal (Santiago), Koji Yakusho (Yasujiro), Adriana Barraza (Amelia), Rinko Kikuchi (Chieko), Said Tarchani (Ahmed), Boubker Ait El Caid (Yussef), Mustapha Rachidi (Abdullah), Elle Fanning (Debbie), Nathan Gamble (Mike), Mohamed Akhzam (Anwar), Salah Mezzi (Moroccan Police Officer), Yuko Murata (Mitsu), Clifton Collins Jr. (Officer at Border Crossing), Wahiba Sahmi (Zohra); Runtime: 143; MPAA Rating: R; producers: González Iñárritu/Jon Kilik/Steve Golin; Paramount Vantage; 2006-in English, Spanish, Japanese, Berber, Arabic and sign language, with English subtitles)

 
"... settles for being a decent but contrived and unmoving psychological drama."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title is taken from the Bible's story of Babel—a tower that would reach the heavens. As a result of forsaking God for material answers the human race was dispersed over the four corners of the earth in a state of confusion — divided and unable to communicate. That tale is updated by Mexican director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu' ("21 Grams"/"Amores Perros"). The other screenwriter is Guillermo Arriaga. Babel is an ambitious, brooding, flawlessly crafted and beautifully photographed film (thanks to Rodrigo Prieto) that takes us globe-trotting across four different parts of the world (Morocco, California, Mexico and Japan) in its attempt to show us the obvious, that there's a divide over race, culture, language and the state of the world due to a lack of communication and vast class differences. It selectively covers how one incident of the shooting of an American tourist in the desert of Morocco reverberates around this modern world via TV and how the world has grown smaller but that those in this film still fail to understand what the other person is saying and that leads to dire consequences. The dramatics are unnatural, more interested in supporting the filmmaker's generalized ideas of the world's state than in caring about the characters as anything but symbolic figures--which smacks of pretentiousness. It takes its turns with interconnected twists in the plot line like Paul Haggis' Crash but wants to be taken in a more serious light like D.W. Griffith's epic Intolerance, which summed up the history of mankind as one filled with blind bigotry. In the end, Babel settles for being a decent but contrived and unmoving psychological drama about such hot-button issues that are all over the map in intensity as the concerns over terrorism and illegal immigration. It also spends much time with a horny Japanese teenager chick looking for sex and a drunk Mexican driving with two gringo kids in the back seat who are not wearing seat belts. Each concern is given equal weight, which makes the film err on the side of being weightless. 

Wealthy Japanese businessman Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho) gives his peasant guide Hassan his high-powered hunting rifle as a present before departing Morocco after a hunting vacation. Hassan sells it to his goat herder peasant neighbor, who lets his two irresponsible sons Yussef and Ahmed use it to shoot jackals. They want to test its power and after the older brother misses a tour bus, the better shot Yussef fires and hits the American passenger Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett) in the neck causing a life-threatening wound. The bilingual native tour guide drops her off in his hometown village of Tazarine, where she's temporarily patched up by the local doctor to stop the bleeding. Her frantic upper-middle-class hubby, Richard Jones (Brad Pitt), still grieving over the loss of their infant son, calls on his cell phone the American Embassy to get his critical wife immediately to the hospital, some four hours away, and his San Diego home where his two young children, Mike and Debbie, are lovingly cared for by illegal immigrant nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). The caring Amelia has set up shop in San Diego for the last 16 years and cared for the children since their birth, and only asks for a day off to attend her son's wedding across the border in her poverty-stricken hometown. But Richard, uptight with fear that he will lose his wife, gruffly refuses to let her abandon the kids. Unable to get anyone to babysit, she lets her amusing loose cannon nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) chauffeur them to the wedding but runs into big problems getting back across the American side of the border late at night and puts the kids in a dangerous situation. In affluent Tokyo, we learn that Yasujiro is a single parent (his wife committed suicide) and his hotheaded athletic teenage daughter Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a deaf-mute who feels unable to connect to her distracted dad, while silently crying out for his attention and love. Chieko hangs out with her deaf-mute playful classmates and tries hard to give away her pussy to a brash punk rocker, a bewildered dentist and a handsome young sensitive detective, but to no avail. The story inter-cuts with repeated cuts back and forth between the four places and among the many characters, a strategy that tested one's patience and didn't seem to make the film better but did show off Iñárritu's formidable film-making skills. What's questionable is the 140 minutes or so that's taken to tell such a slight story and how unseemly it seems to wrap things up so neatly in conclusion. I found that too disconcerting to swallow whole and never really got worked up about all the misunderstandings laid on us or its universal theme of how all human beings have trouble communicating—not just deaf-mutes. It concludes by showing that all roads lead to the tears we shed over our sadness, which is what mankind has in common. That's something I would agree with in principle, but couldn't fall in love with the jarring way it was presented. 

REVIEWED ON 11/12/2006        GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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