There are two things that determine whether a movie is intrinsically good or not: what it is about, and how it goes about it. In other words, that age-old maxim, style and substance. We live in an age now where anyone who wants to can become a filmmaker and has seen enough behind-the-scenes docs and read enough books to become a master of technique. What seems to impress today’s movie-going audience most daunting tracking shots and rapid-fire editing, important elements to move the story along and keep a viewer at bay.
But of equal importance is the story itself, plot developments that logically lead from one to another and characters that affect each other in humane ways, and that is something that seems to have become lost among the newer crop of writers and directors. A key example of such oversight is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, a rather over-hyped trifle that spans a global range but possesses a hollow heart.
Babel gets its title from the Old Testament, importing a lesson for humankind in which they attempted to build a tower after the flood that would reach unto heaven. Unfortunately, this effort angered their lord, who punished them by making each person involved speak a different language, thereby causing everyone to be disconnected and to fail to understand each other.
Yes, that is an apt way to describe the international state of affairs, but even people speaking the same language fail to reach each other, as Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling masterpiece Magnolia demonstrated. So what hope is there for the multilingual characters that populate Babel’s script, penned by Guillermo Arriaga, all of whom suffer ordeals so trying one would think this film were actually an adaptation of a different scripture from Genesis, the Book of Job.
Babel tells four separate stories thinly strung together by various characters’ associations with one another at various points. Iñárritu, who has demonstrated a clip-art method of storytelling before in Amores Perros and 21 Grams (with Arriaga), spans four countries and five languages in his attempt to show the disconnect between people, but it isn’t the divide between foreigners that gets amplified, but between family members who are supposed to know each other better than they do.
There is no logical point of entry for the plot points in Babel; the foreboding feelings begin immediately. Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi), a Moroccan goatherd receives a gun to be used by his family to ward off the jackals that threaten his herd. When left to their own devices, his two young sons, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), begin firing the gun off in the distance. At first it appears that the gun has a weak trajectory, but then a lone tour bus on the road stops.
Though we have an idea what happens, Iñárritu backtracks the narrative to show the brittle couple, Susan and Richard (Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt), who are vacationing in Morocco after weathering some problems -– apparently the loss of their youngest child and his subsequent straying from the family (Arriaga is very stingy with such details, to a fault). By the time the film’s chronology catches up to itself, we see that the sons’ bullet has pierced Susan’s neck, and she needs immediate medical assistance. They are abandoned in a small town with no embassy assistance, waiting for an ambulance.
This is where Iñárritu’s temporal dissonance begins defying reason. Richard reaches Amelia (Adriana Barraza), their babysitter and housekeeper back in San Diego, to tell them that she needs to watch their two other children longer than they thought due to Susan’s wound. But by the time he calls, his storyline is at a more advanced point in the film’s running time than this early scene does. This means that she will be unable to attend her son’s wedding across the border in Mexico. But had Susan not been injured, wouldn’t they have still been in Morocco during her son’s wedding? Also, for a couple dealing with the death of a child, is it necessary to leave their own children and fly halfway across the planet for several weeks’ time? But I digress. The point is Amelia -– an illegal immigrant -– decides to go to the wedding anyway, chauffered by nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal), and with the two young children, Debbie and Mike (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble). Clearly this will not end well for anyone involved.
And yet for those not reaching for their Prozac, there’s an even harder-hitting storyline, and it is also the most remote. A teenage deaf girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) who lost her mother within the last year also begins to unravel in some shocking ways. Yes, she has a connection to the other storylines, but is tenuous at best. More importantly, these plotlines feel arbitrary — some are resolved and some are not. And why do they belong together? Why didn’t Arriaga feel compelled to continue the chain of misery to further countries?
Babel’s filmmakers will not answer these questions. In fact, they don’t even try. What this means is that all of these disconnected characters are merely pawns, points in their filmic game of connect-the-dots. Luckily, the majority of the cast sketches in some indelible portraiture, especially Barrazza, Blanchett, Kikuchi and Rachidi. But this a movie focused on the big picture, and while Arriaga and Iñárritu deserve credit for the ambition of their scope (and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione deserve much praise for making Babel the fluid ride that it is), unlike so many of the characters in this film, it is clear that they are ultimately the ones at fault for this vacant paean to political correctness.