Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/18/06 w/ Additional Edits.
Following the success of 2003's 21 Grams, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was hailed as one of cinema's most creative and original film directors. Often helped by screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, they were one of the great writer-director duos around as they helped bring attention to Mexican cinema. In 2005, Arriaga wrote another screenplay for American actor Tommy Lee Jones for his feature-film debut called The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada that won Arriaga a best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival. It was around the same time Arriaga and Inarritu went to work on their most ambitious, worldly project entitled Babel.
Written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Inarritu, Babel is a multi-layered, multi-story about mis-communication, isolation, and all the troubles of the world. Three different stories involve a couple in Morocco trying to save their marriage only to be involved in a shooting that leads to another story. Another story involving the couple's maid taking care of their children involves more problems when she has to attend a wedding and her nephew is trying to cross the border. The third and final story involves a young, deaf Japanese woman trying to understand her own isolation. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Emilio Echevarria, Adriana Barraza, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Pena, and Rinko Kikuchi. Babel is a brilliant, worldly film from the duo of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga.
In the mountains in the middle of Morocco, a man named Hassan (Abdelkader Bara) is visiting his friend and neighbor Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) about a Winchester rifle he wants to give away where Abdullah made a trade for it which Hassan received some money and a goat. The purchase of the gun was used to kill jackals who were trying to kill Abdullah's goats. Abdullah's sons Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) were given the gun to use where during the trek to find jackals, they practiced shooting in which Ahmed isn't good at aiming and the younger Yussef is. During their practice, Yussef attempts to hit right near an oncoming tour bus just to see how good the bullets are at three kilometers. Unbeknownst to Yussef and Ahmed, one of the bullets hit a passenger.
In the same area in Morocco some time earlier, an American couple in Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are desperately trying to save their marriage at a time in crisis where the couple seems to be falling apart. Taking a vacation in Morocco didn't seem like a good after all as they continued their tour. When Susan was sleeping the bus, a bullet has suddenly hit her near her neck on her left shoulder as she is bleeding badly. The tour's guide in Anwar (Mohamed Akhzam) takes the bus to a town nearby which he lives as Susan is bleeding badly where her condition seems grim. With the hours going by, people in the tour that included French and British tourists are getting upset at the wait as a man is sick from the heat. A British tourist named Tom (Peter Wight) is getting upset as Richard asks for more time while Susan is under the care of Anwar, his grandmother (Sfia Ait Benboullah), and a doctor (Hammou Aghrar). Immediately, news of Susan's shooting causes trouble with diplomatic relations between American and Moroccan where Moroccan police begin to investigate as it leads to answers from Hassan and his wife (Ehou Mama) and questions about where the gun came from. With Susan in grim condition, only Richard is by her side as he tries to get her to stay alive.
Meanwhile in California, Richard and Susan's children Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble) are under the care of their Mexican maid Amelia (Adriana Barraza). After receiving a call from Richard about his sister-in-law going to watch the children, Amelia is pleased that she can attend the wedding of her son Lucio (Damian Garcia) and his bride Patricia (Cynthia Montano). Then when Amelia gets a call that Susan's sister won't make it to take care of the children and that she couldn't attend her wedding, she decides to take the kids to Mexico as they're accompanied by her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal). They made it through Mexico without any trouble as the children have a good time at the wedding while Amelia meets an old friend in Emilio (Emilio Echevarria) where everything seems to go great. While Santiago was a bit intoxicated, he drove Amelia and the children back to the U.S. when they were about to cross the border, trouble arise when they're questioned by an officer (Clifton Collins Jr.) and things become troubling. With Amelia and the children lost in the desert, Amelia seeks to find help where she meets another officer (Michael Pena) only to be faced with the harsh realities.
In Tokyo, a young deaf woman named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is still mourning the death of her mother from suicide for the past several months. With her father Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho) trying to get her to communicate, she is still angry at him for not being attentive enough towards her. With only her fellow deaf friend Mitsu (Yuko Murata) taking her to places, they hope to be as normal as everyone else where they try to attract a boy but their deafness seems to work against them in trying to connect. With Chieko aware of her sexuality, she becomes desperate for some attention as she tries to get her dentist (Shigemitsu Ogi) to kiss her. While returning home to her apartment, two detectives named Kenji (Satoshi Nikaido) and Hamano (Kazunori Tozawa) arrive who have some questions for her father. Chieko is attracted to Kenji where she later decides to go to a party with Mitsu as she meets Haruki (Nobushige Suematsu) that leads an ecstacy-driven haze and party where Chieko's loneliness gets to her. Calling Kenji about his investigation, she thinks it's about her mother when really, it's involves something else as her desperation to connect where it leads her to an emotional epiphany as the feeling of mis-communication and misunderstandings come across to everyone around the world.
Taking from the story about the Tower of Babel where according to the Bible, the descendants of Noah decided to build a tower that would reach the Heavens amidst the floods relating to the story of Noah's Ark. God, angry at those that defied decided to create languages where as a result, those working at the tower couldn't understand each other leading to mis-communication. This is the theme of Babel, mis-communication and misunderstanding. Particularly from a political and cultural point of view where the film ends up not just questioning American foreign policy and how it pressures the diplomatic situations of other countries but also the paranoia that comes in from those pressures in the post-9/11 world. The film is also a mediation of isolation and how mis-communication can lead to a sense of disconnection in the story of Chieko. Yet, there's something in Chieko's story that relates to the struggles of Richard/Susan and the Moroccan boys as well as the story of Amelia. It's all related to an object or a conflict within the characters and what they're going through. The result is a very provocative, epic feature that questions assumptions and the misunderstanding of the world to the point that something could go very wrong.
While the idea of the film both credited to Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, it's all set-up and written with great precision from Arriaga. Taking the same, non-linear-like approach with his previous scripts for Amores Perros and 21 Grams, this one is more worldly due to the location and situations the characters are in. The whole film is taken place in days where the story of Susan is in the background in Chieko's world while Amelia's story takes place sometime afterwards. While some of the plot points that Arriaga creates do kind of spoil things a bit but only keeps the audience guessing on what could be going on. The result is a very strong script from Arriaga whose talents are clearly one of the more insatiable into commanding a very multi-layered, multi-storied script.
Then there's the direction of Inarritu that is truly more worldly and observant at each segment that he's directing. Taking moments where in the Mexico and Japanese segments around the first half, there's moments of celebration while everything else in Morocco is chaotic. The second half reveals something far more cerebral and emotional in the situation that Amelia is going through while Chieko is dealing with her own sexual awakening and isolation. Inarritu definitely goes for the harsh realism of his work where he points out moments of development as some of the characters realize the clash of cultures and their own lack of understanding on how countries work as well as the fear of the way things work. While the entire film is mostly drama, there's a few moments of humor while revealing the nature of sexual awakening whether it's Yussef's own sexual awakening from one of the girls that lived in his home or Chieko's own strange behavior is really more emotional and natural. Those subplots is still relevant to the theme of mis-communication in the way humans are trying to express themselves. The result is clearly Inarritu at the top of his game.
Helping Inarritu with his worldly vision is longtime cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Prieto's grainy, hand-held camera work is more fluid than ever in how he shoots the huge mountains of Morocco to the vast deserts of California and Mexico. Prieto's exterior shots are very natural to the situations and harrowing world while his work in the Japanese segment is breathtaking. Much like Lance Acord's work in Sofia Coppola's 2003's Lost in Translation, Prieto's use of colors and light reveal the sense of eeriness in tune with Chieko's troubling emotions as it's one of the highlights of the film. Longtime production designer Brigitte Broch along with art director Rika Nakanishi also do fantastic work in the film's different settings with the stone-like world of Morocco, the clean, polished look of California, the grittiness of Mexico, and the more sleek look of Japan. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson also plays to the film's differentiation of cultures in clothing where standing out more is Chieko's short skirts that reveals more of her troubling character.
Editors Stephen Mirrone and Douglas Crise do amazing work with the editing in the way the stories go back-and-forth and so on to the different segments where it doesn't get confusing while being aware of what is going in the background and such. With elements of jump-cuts, perspective cuts, and everything else, the editing is wonderfully tighten in its 142-minute running time while making the audience aware of what's going on. Longtime sound designer Martin Hernandez also does amazing work in capturing the tense atmosphere of each locations, notably in Japan that is filled with an array of sounds, notably in the outside like the Shibuya crosswalk. Longtime music composer Gustavo Santaolalla creates a very haunting score filled with ambient tones and traditional yet imperfect acoustic tracks that is indeed haunting in its melody and situations. The soundtrack includes a rich mix of traditional Mexican music plus Mexican hip-hop along with Eastern music and J-Pop to reveal the vast differences in culture.
Finally, we have the film's huge ensemble cast and it's indeed by far the best ensemble cast assembled for any film. Small performances from the likes of Yuko Murata, Kazunori Tozawa, Nobushige Suematsu, Michael Pena, Clifton Collins Jr., Jamie McBride as a Border Patrol Officer, Cynthia Montano, Damian Garcia, Ehou Mama, Wahiba Sahmi as Zohra, the object of Yussef's affections, Peter Wight, Hammou Aghrar, Sfia Ait Benboullah, and Amores Perros star Emilio Echevarria in a small role as Emilio. Abdelkader Bara is excellent as Hassan who has his best moment when he's interrogated and beaten into revealing information about the gun while Mustapha Rachidi is also great as the moralistic Abdullah. Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid are also great as the young boys who realize what they've done as they try to do right only to realize what kind of trouble the rifle has brought them. Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble are also great as Debbie and Mike who are unaware of the political problems as they seem to have a better understanding of cultures since they can also understand Spanish.
Mohammed Akhzam is excellent as the guide Anwar who tries to help out Richard while they have a bond in being parents and trying to understand their own cultural differences. Satoshi Nikaido is also good as the cop Kenji who tries to make an investigation only to learn of Chieko's emotional troubles. Koji Yakusho is wonderfully understated as Chieko's father who is desperate to connect with her daughter while mourning his wife while he tries to understand about an investigation that involves the other stories in the film. Gael Garcia Bernal is really good in his small role as Santiago with his brash, fun attitude in the film's first half only to become paranoid when dealing with border patrols as Bernal reveals the fear of those dealing with American foreign policy. Adriana Barraza, who was also in Amores Perros with Bernal and Echevarria, gives one of the year's best performances as Amelia. Barraza displays all of the emotions and struggle that her characters go through as well as an emotional dilemma in being a maternal figure to the children she's supposed to take care of as it's an amazing performance from the veteran Mexican actress.
While Brad Pitt is often at times considered to be more of a good-looking movie star than a serious actor really shows his depth in his role as Richard. Sporting a grizzled beard and a face that reveals his worn-out personality only to develop into a desperate man realizing his own cultural ignorance and everything while being worried for his wife as Pitt delivers a great performance. Cate Blanchett is also in fine form as Susan as a woman wounded from her disintegrating marriage only to face with her own mortality as Blanchett brings an elegance and weariness to her role. The film's best and biggest breakthrough performance goes to Rinko Kikuchi. Playing a deaf-mute, Kikuchi gives the film's most understated and eerie performance of the film as a young woman trying to understand her own role in the world where in some scenes, we can't hear anything from her point of view while trying to be aware of her own sexual awakening. Kikuchi shows the anguish and isolation of a young woman trying to understand the world as it's a breathtaking performance from the young actress.
Part of a trilogy of death with its previous features Amores Perros and 21 Grams, this film does feature a sense of tragedy but this time around, the tragedy is more heartbreaking in what goes inside the characters. All three films deal with a sense of loss as well as the harsh realities of the world. With Babel, it definitely marks an end of an era not just with its exploration of death but also marking the final collaboration between director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Largely due to who deserved credit for the success of their collaborations and so forth where at the film's world premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Arriaga was banned in attending the premiere and promotions. It was there the film won prizes including a Best Director award for Inarritu. Therefore, it was revealed that the two had a falling out as Babel indeed marks the end of the Inarritu-Arriaga collaboration.
Babel is an extraordinary film from the team of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Thanks to Inarritu's worldly direction, Arriaga's complex script, the talents of its collaborators, and amazing performances from its cast including Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mohammed Akhzam, Adriana Barazza, and Rinko Kikuchi. This is a film that will indeed raise questions into people's perceptions of cultures as well as international incidents that can be assumed as something else. While the film might be too engaging politically to some audiences, the result into the internal struggle of isolation and mis-communication is very relevant to today's post-9/11 world. So for a film that reveals the human struggle and reveals how small the world can be, Babel is the film to see.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Films: Amores Perros - (21 Grams) - (Biutiful)
(C) thevoid99 2011