This film sort of slipped under my radar. I have seen the trailer a few times, but that is about it. No advanced press or information about it, something I found strange considering the film stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal. After watching the film, this makes sense. The film is being positioned to be one of those “conversation starter” films, films that create buzz and then earn some Oscar nominations. The smaller it looks, the better its chances.
“Babel” is a very good film. It has some flaws, but I am willing to overlook most of those due to the power of the story and the acting.
A Moroccan goat herder buys a gun from a neighbor; he wants to keep the Jackals away from his goats, to preserve his cash flow. He gives the gun to his two sons, who take the goat herd out every day. The two boys, alone and bored, decide to test the statement of the neighbor who sold their father the gun; can the bullets reach 3 km. One of the boys is adept at using the weapon, the other is not. Finally, a tour bus makes its way down a barren road below them. Taking aim, they fire. After a few moments, the bus stops and the boys run away. An affluent California couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are traveling through Morocco on the tour bus. It is clear they have some problems in their marriage and perhaps the trip is a method of patching up the relationship. Dozing off to sleep, the wife suddenly gasps in pain; she has been shot. The husband asks the Moroccan guide where they can go. He says that his village is nearby and there is a doctor there. The other tourists are frightened, but the woman is losing too much blood. Back home, the couple’s nanny is waiting for their sister to arrive and watch the couple’s two young children. The husband calls; his sister can’t make it. The nanny is expected at her son’s wedding the next day in Mexico. Her boss says “Cancel the wedding, I’ll pay for a better wedding when I get back”. She decides to take the children with her. Her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) shows up to drive and they are off on an adventure. In Tokyo, a confused teenager (Rinko Kinkuchi), who is also a deaf mute, is having difficultly hiding her anger; her mother died a few months earlier and the relationship between she and her father is strained. She is also very anxious to have sex and many of the boys treat her as a freak when they find out she is a deaf mute. So she teases them and other men, in an effort for some release.
Now, you might say to yourself after reading this synopsis, as I did while watching this film, “What connection does a deaf mute Japanese teenage girl have to the rest of the story?” And the answer is “A very tenuous one.” For a film like this to work, a film containing elaborate, multifaceted stories, everything has to be connected and work well together, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Everything else fits into place nicely and works together, which makes the Japanese story stand out all the more. The connection is just too small.
That said, the story is interesting, unusual and worth watching.
Over the years, there have been many film and television projects following the course of one item through the hands of multiple owners. And there have been other projects exploring the consequences of one action through different stories. “Babel” is a little of both.
The gun passed down from one farmer to the other causes the beginning of the film, but the other elements are connected to this American couple and the gun, allowing the story to branch off from two different places. This is ultimately what makes the film as a whole better than the mistakes of individual parts. Because Inarritu is taking us in many directions, he has to create a compelling and interesting story. He has done that. In spades.
As the American couple wait in the small Moroccan village for an ambulance, the rest of the tourists become antsy. It’s hot and the driver won’t turn on the air conditioning because that will waste gas and he can’t stop at a corner gas station for a refill. The tourists are also frightened because they are in a small village where they believe anything can happen. A local brings them a plate of flatbread, because they must be hungry, yet they avoid her. She could be a terrorist trying to poison them. The Mexican nanny is clearly devoted to the children in her care, but her family obligations require her trip to Mexico. She decides to take them along and because they have grown up with her, they are completely at ease. Once they arrive at the wedding, these shy children have a great time, meeting new people, learning new things. The Moroccan boys hide the gun when their father comes home and states an American tourist was shot. Naturally, they are scared and don’t breathe a word of the incident to their dad. The Japanese girl finds it difficult to find a companion. She and her friend are introduced to another friend’s cousin, a handsome boy who doesn’t seem to mind they are deaf because he has grown up with his cousin and he even understands some sign language. After an afternoon of drinking and partying, they go out dancing. As she moves in, she finds the boy kissing her friend. Heartbroken, she wanders the busy streets of Tokyo.
Because each of these stories has many layers, the filmmaker holds our attention to the very end. Yes, some of these stories have problems, but in the end, I suspect that is probably what he wants to get across. It makes them seem more real, more life like, because life isn’t neat and tidy.
If you have seen either of Inarritu’s previous films, you will recognize this film as his own. In “Babel”, each of the stories is connected, but the timelines of each story are not synced. For instance, we first meet the Moroccan man and his family, learn about their life and watch as the neighbor trades them a gun and bullets. Then, they teach the sons how to use the gun and the boys take the goats out and do a little target practice. Then, a tour bus appears in the distance. The film cuts to a home in California. The Mexican nanny rushes to answer the phone. On the other end, Pitt is calling from Morocco, distraught, but he explains that his sister will be flying in to take care of the kids. The next day, he calls again to let the nanny know that the sister can’t make it, she will have to stay and watch the kids, cancel the wedding. Then we watch as Brad and Cate sit at a makeshift café in the Moroccan desert. Cate is very unhappy, uses sanitizer on her hands and won’t drink a coke with ice because she doesn’t know where the water came from. Later, she is shot by a stray bullet. The next day, the nanny’s nephew comes to pick them up and take them to the wedding. All of this happens within the first fifteen or twenty minutes and we pick up some stories before other stories start, shifting between the timelines of each with ease. Near the end of the film, you realize some of these story threads start much later than others. Because of this, some of the stories are the consequence of other actions in other parts of the film. Inarritu plays with the chronology of the film; it looks like we are watching things unfold simultaneously, but later we learn the secret to this story and how everything fits into place.
“Babel” will not be remembered because of the acting, it will be remembered because of the storytelling. Clearly, these actors wanted to be involved because of the director and the story; each of the actors is playing a character we meet in mid story. They aren’t allowed to have full character arches because the director only wants us to see specific things at precise times. As a result, much of Cate Blanchett’s screen time is spent depicting her character’s suffering from the gunshot wound she has received. Most of Brad Pitt’s, the anguish of a husband unable to stop his wife’s pain. Bernal’s character is the driver for the nanny and her children, to get to her son’s wedding. He acts as a facilitator, getting the children acclimated to their new surroundings, but then he has a good time, along with everyone else, during the festive ceremony. It doesn’t even matter that these characters do not develop very much, they are there to serve the story and the story is what is important in “Babel”.
That Japanese story. I keep coming back to that. Because the connection is so tenuous, you would expect it to provide greater illumination to the overall theme of the film, to help us see what the other stories are trying to portray. But it doesn’t. The story is interesting and unusual; I can think of few depictions of Japanese teenager’s on film, even fewer depictions of deaf mute teenagers and no previous portrayals of deaf mute Japanese teenagers. We are immediately drawn in and the character is interesting, perhaps the most fully developed. But she has very, very little to do with the Moroccan farmers, the American couple and the Mexican nanny. During her journey, Inarritu experiments with the sights and sounds of her journey, trying to make us as disoriented as she must feel. But this can’t be the sole reason for her inclusion in this story. Can it?
“Babel” is a well-made, complicated film depicting four very different groups of people who are all connected by circumstances created by others. It is interesting, thought provoking and well-done. Not perfect, but well-done.