Following the sprawling, interconnected sagas Amores Perros and 21 Grams, director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu's new film Babel is a similarly-structured story with a much broader scope. In Morocco, vacationing husband and wife Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are realizing they also brought along all their troubles and resentments. Up in the hills, a group of children idly experiment with a new rifle to see if it's any good, idly pointing it at rocks and trees or any object in the distance ... including a bus full of tourists. Sitting on the bus, a small flat sound is heard as Susan slumps in her seat, and Richard finds his wife's clothes showing crimson blood as he pleads for someone, anyone to help. ...
Babel cuts between Richard's frustrating attempts to get some kind of help for Susan in a foreign and confusing land and the shocked realization of the local boys that their idle curiosity has had tragic ramifications; Iñárritu's script also introduces us to Amelia (Adrianna Bazarra), the nanny to Richard and Susan's son and daughter, who has to reconcile her sudden increased responsibility with her plans to accompany her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) to a wedding in Mexico. At the same time, we meet troubled teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf woman living with her father Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho) whose isolation and grief at her mother's passing are causing her to act out sexually in a desperate attempt to connect in any way. Chieko and Yasujiro's connection to Richard and Susan isn't readily apparent, but it is real.
Written by Guillermo Arriaga, Babel may seem unfocussed and uneven at first, but in time you realize that every piece clicks -- the three stories connect, the people in the stories connect, the actions of the present are explained by revelations about the past -- with smooth elegance. There aren't big speeches or soliloquies in Babel -- both Iñárritu and Arriaga are too smart for that sort of obvious storytelling. Instead, you get moments in time -- a few words, a glance, a shift in expression -- that speaks volumes. Watch as Blanchett and Pitt feud about the ice in his soft drink, or Bernal's eyes in the rear-view mirror of his car, or Kikuchi's body language as she tries too hard to catch the eye of a fellow student. The chance to see great, natural acting in the service of careful, engaged screenwriting is a rare one, but Babel offers exactly that pleasure to audiences.
Just like Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Babel is gorgeously shot and made with real filmmaking talent; at the same time, while Iñárritu's working on a worldwide canvas here, he is making very similar strokes to those in his prior films. Part of me watched Babel with a feeling of apprehension -- is Iñárritu in a groove, or a rut? That question may have to wait for Iñárritu's next film to have an answer, but for now, I'm happy to have seen the wrenching realism and tightly-focused power of Babel.