"Therefore is the name of it called Babel because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth." Genesis 11:9
There are filmmakers who make good films, even great films, and then there are filmmakers who take making a movie to a whole new level of artistry, so far above the mean as to be incomparable to anything else. Alejandro González Iñnáritu is such a filmmaker, and with Babel he tells his story with such power and control that by the end of it you are at his cinematic mercy, utterly exhausted and spent, and yet fulfilled on a soul level in a way that is almost indescribable. Babel represents the final third of the trilogy that Iñnáritu began with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. With each film Iñnáritu has grown as a filmmaker, and Babel represents his most difficult and complex undertaking to date. Iñnáritu himself said when he introduced the film at Telluride for its North American premiere, that he was profoundly personally affected by the filming of Babel, which took place over the course of a year in Tunisia, Morocco, Mexico and Japan.
Babel is, as Iñnáritu has said, a film that started out being about the ways in which we are different, but ended up being about the ways in which we are the same across cultures. It's about the borders that divide us: The borders of our countries and our governments, but more importantly, the borders within ourselves that keep us from recognizing the commonality and humanity in us all. Iñnáritu uses this theme of communication and borders to tell the three loosely connected stories that make up Babel. In a remote part of Morocco, two young boys guarding goats play around with a rifle they have been given by their father to shoot the jackals that have been attacking their goats. Bored with shooting at rocks, they recklessly fire at a distant tour bus, never imaging the tragic consequences for both the woman their stray bullet hits and themselves.
In Japan, we meet Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute teenager who is filled with anger over the way the world treats her because of her deafness. She wants to be like other girls, but when boys her age learn she is deaf-mute, they treat her, in her own words, like a monster. She acts out sexually in a desperate bid to connect and feel whole. Her only friends are other deaf-mute girls; she exists in a world of deafening silence, where all around her she can see the hustle and bustle, but cannot hear it. Everything seems an affront to her, from groups of other kids laughing and talking, to a kid listening to music through his iPod, to the traffic driving noiselessly by. Iñnáritu shows us what it is like to live in her world, the difficulties she faces communicating with anyone outside her circle of deaf-mute friends. Communication has broken down also between the girl and her father; her mother has died, and both of them are floundering in their individual grief over the loss, unable to reach each other even long enough to find comfort in each other.
Back in Morocco, we meet Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American tourist couple who don't seem to know what they're doing there. They have come to this remote place, alone without their children, to try and connect with each other, but the gulf between them (that sense of things both said and unsaid) seems insurmountable. They, like the Japanese father and daughter, seem unable to reach each other to make a connection. They are speaking the same language, but their words serve as a barrier rather than a means of bringing them closer. After a meal at an open-air cafe, the two climb back on their tour bus, which begins winding its way through the remote desert. Susan looks bleakly out the window, but moves her hand to her husband's, trying to forge some kind of connection between them. Suddenly a shot rings out, and Susan collapses, bleeding profusely from the neck. The tour bus trip through the desert has just taken a deadly turn. Richard's wife is injured, maybe dying, and they are four hours from the nearest hospital. The tour bus makes its way through the rural village of one of the tour guides, where there is at least a doctor, but things seem very bleak.
We jump to America, where Richard and Susan's children, Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota) are being cared for by Amelia (Adrianna Barazza, in a stand-out performance), their Mexican nanny. Their father is calling with an update on his wife, who has been injured and needs surgery; he promises Amelia that help to relieve her of the children is coming. In a later call, though, he tells her that no one can come, and that she must stay with the kids. Amelia is distraught because she needs to get to her son's wedding. Richard tells her that he will pay for another wedding later, but that right now she must stay with the children; they are counting on her. Amelia tries desperately to find someone to watch the children so she can go to her son's wedding, but when she cannot find anyone she trusts to leave her young charges with, she makes a desperate and naively foolish decision to take the children with her to the wedding -- across the border into Mexico, without their parents' permission, in a run-down car driven by her nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal)
From there, Iñnáritu seamlessly jumps back and forth in timeliness and among the three stories, revealing slowly their connections. In each piece, communication is crucial: Different languages and political issues prevent help from getting to Richard and Susan. Their fellow tourists are frightened, believing they have been attacked by terrorists; they have come to Morocco, one assumes, to experience a different culture, and yet now that they are in a situation where they are truly immersed in it, they want the hell out. Seeing another culture from behind the shaded glass of a tour bus is one thing, it seems; being stuck in a remote village where no one speaks your language, in the middle of a desert without the air conditioning they are accustomed to having to keep them comfortable, is another matter entirely. This world where there is only one phone, no comforts they are used to, and no instant access to emergency medical care with a call to 911 is so foreign to them, they might as well have crashed on another planet.
The beauty of Babel is how Iñnáritu weaves all these pieces together to create a unified picture of how language, communication barriers and cultural differences divide us, while simultaneously showing us the commonalities: The relationships between parents and children, from Morocco to Japan to American, and united by common themes of love and tragedy. Iñnáritu bookends the film with a phone conversation between Richard and his son from two points of view. The first time, we see only Mike's perspective, and the conversation seems not to have much meaning. When we see the conversation from Richard's viewpoint toward the end of the film, knowing all the events that have transpired, the impact is wrenching and enormously powerful. Babel is a masterpiece of a film; now that Iñnáritu has completed his ambitious trilogy, it will be interesting to see what the filmmaker comes up with next. Will he continue in the same vein, or will he, as many artists do, evolve into a completely different period of artistic expression, equally good but completely different?
For more on Babel, read James Rocchi's review of the film from Cannes.