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Babel

dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu
[img_assist|nid=855|title=Staring at this biblical picture is more edifying that watching this movie|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=284|height=300]
The biblical tale about the Tower of Babel concerns the myth explaining why so many different languages are spoken around the globe. Back when the story is supposedly set, everyone spoke the same language, which was presumably Aramaic spoken with a Brooklyn accent.

All these people communicated with each other perfectly, and considering how wonderful such perfect communication helped them in their endeavours, they decided to embark upon a great project.

The plan was to build a building tall enough to get to Heaven, in order to hang out with God. So they started building upwards with the intention of getting to the Promised Land without having to go through all the trouble of living right and dying well.

God saw the way in which the project was proceeding, and grew irritated both with their plans to invade his crib, and with the effectiveness with which they worked together in this pre-email, pre-weekly meeting age.

So he confounded them by giving them all different languages, and from thence did the Lord scatter them upon the face of the Earth.

Not only is the tale supposed to explain, to children, why so many races and languages exist upon the planet, but also to warn humans against the arrogance to presume they will ever be on the same level as their perfect Creator.

For this here movie, Babel, the latest from sturm und drang Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writing partner Guillermo Arriaga, the name stands for the way in which we are all connected, but that our inability to communicate effectively leads us to do terrible things.

At least, that’s the flick’s ambition. It is meant to be an interlocking tale weaving in stories of people in peril across the globe tenuously connected by a random event, which teaches us about the humanity that unites us and the barriers that divide us. What the flick actually is, is an interesting way to spend two and a half hours, but nothing anywhere near as successful as they think it is on the levels intended.

I know their intention, but I can also see the results. Don’t get me wrong, not by any stretch am I saying the film is a failure. This team of Iñárritu and Arriaga have previously given the world the masterworks Amores Perros and 21 Grams, and whatever failings those films have, it certainly isn’t in performance or in realisation.

Babel fits in nicely with the other two flicks, in that it has similarly overwrought dramatics, a convoluted structure and the lynchpin of a catastrophic event linking the protagonists. But its thematic elements don’t come across as well as the other two, because its intentions (or pretensions) are higher, and not as well realised as before.

For me to accept the film’s premise, I’d have to be able to see something which is completely absent from the events that transpire within the film. I don’t see people who are separated by common or different languages, or whose communications are disrupted or interfered with by layers of prejudice, selfishness, confusion or incomprehension. The main driving force within the film seems to be how making stupid decisions leads to tragic circumstances.

Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are an American couple trying to come to terms with the loss of their baby by taking a trip to Morocco, presumably to save their marriage. I don’t know if that qualifies as a stupid decision, but it certainly is pretty naïve.

Whilst travelling through the mountains in a tour bus, through no fault of their own, something bad happens to one of them.

Two brothers, Yussef (Boubker Ait el Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani) are herding goats on a Moroccan mountain, and decide, through the nature of their competitiveness, to take some pot shots with their father’s new rifle at a distant tour bus. Stupid Decision #1.

At around the same time, the American couple’s maid Amelia (Adriana Barraza) back in San Diego is given a tough choice. She cannot relinquish control of the couple’s children, but she has to get to Mexico for her beloved son’s wedding. In desperation, despite being what the law in the States would call an “illegal alien”, she decides to cross the border regardless with the two, blonde, Aryan poster children in tow. Stupid Decision #2.

A world away, a young deaf mute girl, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is so desperate for a physical connection to the world, since she lives in a completely silent realm where communication is by default soundless, that she tries to initiate sex constantly with practically any male she sees. Yes, I know it sounds like the plot of every Japanese, American and European porn film made since the 60s, but I can only report what I see. Stupid Decision Making Process #3.

Much, much later on in the film, Amelia’s nephew Santiago (the ever-fantastic Gael Garcia Bernal), is confronted with a difficult situation at the border, and decides to let his car do the problem solving. Stupid, stupid decision #4.

The stories interweave and are interspersed throughout the film, and it is only at the end that you get the real sense of when this was all occurring, which isn’t really that much of a concern. Each of the individual storylines is practically worth a film on their own, and the acting is top notch throughout, but there are times, throughout this long, long film, where you’ve completely forgotten the other storylines and are jarred by their reintroduction.

It’s always interesting, and I can’t really fault the people involved for trying, but I don’t really think it holds together the way they believe it does. The weakest link is definitely the Pitt-Blanchett pairing, where, though they do okay, you really can’t wait for them to get back to one of the other storylines.

Because of the scenario, they really don’t have that much to do apart from overact. If you ever, in your wildest fever dreams, wondered what it would be like if Cate Blanchett had played the Mr Orange character from Reservoir Dogs, you might get an inkling from watching Babel. She spends most of the film bleeding, shuddering and pantomiming in a transparent attempt to get another Oscar. Pitt fairs little better, letting the cosmetically-greyed hair and latex crow’s feet do most of the acting, in between screaming at people or crying on the phone.

Two of the more interesting aspects of the Moroccan adventure involve the way that the other tourists on the tour bus act once Susan is wounded, and the second is the way the boys and their families react to a difficult situation. The Moroccan authorities, spurred on by diplomatic pressure from the US State Department, think that terrorists are responsible for the shooting, and are determined to jackboot their way to the truth.

I especially liked how self-centred the travellers become on the bus. Their momentary concern for the wounded Susan is rapidly replaced with their concern for their own comfort above anyone’s safety, which brings a sardonic smile to my lips at how soon it happens. Richard is given aid and support by a sympathetic local called Anwar (Mohamed Akhzam) who does everything he can to help Susan. Even his mummified grandmother (Sfia Ait Benboullah) does more to help her out by giving her a few tokes on her hashpipe to ease the pain.

The trials and tribulations of the Mexican maid and her gringo charges is always interesting, including some naughtiness that she gets up to at the reception, and her fate is quite sad. That sub-plot brings in more notions of contemporary American politics and policy as it looks at how Mexicans are treated by the ‘system’, man, but I don’t think it is as illuminating as the makers think it is. I came away from what happens to Amelia and the kids thinking less “Geez, aren’t those customs officials and border guards big meanies” and thinking more “Jeez, she was pretty silly to think things could have gone in her favour.”

The least promising on paper story is the Japanese one, but dramatically, despite the tawdriness of the premise, it is amazing. Chieko is a damaged girl acting out in the most clichéd of ways, but, where porno flicks would lead to the obvious climax, each attempt by her to bridge the unbridgeable gap between herself and other people leaves her even more isolated and heartbroken. Particularly strong is a scene at a rave where Chieko tries to join into a tribal, communal vibe despite being completely deaf, and seems to succeed, but as we watch her face fall from a joyous smile to heartbreak through the split-second flashes of a strobe-light, we know she is more alone that ever.

It’s heartbreaking stuff, and she’s a wonderful actress. All the same, to say that the connection between this material and the rest of the film is tenuous at best is an understatement. And I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t really understand what happened at the end of that segment regarding the ‘revelation’ of the circumstances of Chieko’s mother’s death, or what it was supposed to mean regarding her behaviour.

Individually they’re interesting and well-acted stories. Together, split apart and then edited back together again into an overarching monstrosity, I really don’t think it all hangs together that well. In such a circumstance, the shifts from story to story are distracting and detract from the overall effectiveness of the production. I’m not saying it’s bad, but there was definitely something lacking that would merge the disparate threads into a united whole. Maybe my opinion will change on subsequent viewings, down the track, but that’s where it is right now.

My final impression was still a reasonably positive one. There was a piece of music used at the end of the film which I recognised from 21 Grams. It sounds like a trilling guitar, both plaintive and melodic, sad and subtle, which I very much liked. And it did, as perhaps was intended, remind me of this director / screenwriter team’s other films, and how you could look at them all as one big film about people and their struggles to make sense of their pointless lives, riven by tragedy, not always able to pick up the pieces afterwards.

There is a definite humanity to these films, a yearning quality to just wish that perhaps life would be less awful if people were better able to communicate with each other. Which, if we believe the tale of Babel in the Bible, God specifically went out of his way to ensure we could never do so again.

5 times you could wish a film dealing with the adventures of Japanese schoolgirls would not always have to include something about their panties out of 10

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“Richard: What about you? How many wives do you have?
Anwar: I can only afford one.” – that’s more than enough for any man, Babel.

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