Release Date: October 27, 2006
The infelicitously named Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of 21 Grams and Amores Perros, gives us a tale woven of several other smaller tales which, though separate in time and space, are linked together like a chain. The conceit is attractive and Iñárritu is a capable director, but it is bad news for a film when a viewer sits staring at the credits saying, “So what?”
Babel, similar to the director’s earlier works, is a mix of different stories – four in all – which are linked to another story and so indirectly are all connected. Brad Pitt plays Richard, and Cate Blanchett plays Susan, a married couple vacationing in the Moroccan desert. Their children are back home in San Diego, being taken care of by the nanny whose son’s wedding in Mexico is approaching. In Japan a young deaf and mute girl lives with her father and both struggle to overcome her mother’s death while the girl yearns for broader male acceptance which her disability seems to deny her. In Morocco, a shepherd family purchases a new rifle to scare away jackals. As the movie progresses, we slowly see how the different scenarios are connected.
First we are presented with the Moroccan family, as the father purchases a rifle for his sons who must watch over the herd of goats. While trying the rifle out, one of the young sons hits a tourist bus and shoots Susan in the shoulder. Far from a hospital, Richard and the tour guide struggle to get Susan some medical care until an ambulance can come for her. Back in San Diego, the nanny is frustrated to realize that they will not be coming home in time to allow the nanny to go to her son’s wedding. The connection in Japan becomes apparent later on.
Like the aforementioned works, the style of Babel is stripped down realistic bereft of ornamentation, very much like a low budget video documentary. No slow motion, no dramatic lighting, no special sound effects, little use of tripods and absolutely no hamming for the camera of any sort. It is a style which can be useful and the director makes it work. The separate stories are also at least moderately interesting, although occasionally they get a bit sensational, which jars with the realistic filming style that the director employs.
But despite what the film has going for it, it falls short of impressing. For one thing, the central theme of the movie is not accurately explored. The reference to the Tower of Babel suggests that at the heart of everything will be a fundamental inability to communicate, and while there are many forms of language and many misunderstandings, miscommunication is by and large not responsible for the predicaments in which the characters find themselves. We are left with four different quandaries which are quite apart from the miscommunication in the movie, and neither one acts as a commentary on the other.
Nor, for that matter, do the separate stories comment on one another, reinforce one another or truly illuminate each other. They are simply four separate stories with at times tenuous connections. Yes, they have similar themes running throughout – such as miscommunication and familial love triumphing over the hard times – but the stories often feel quite isolated from any other part of the movie. And perhaps this is the point, but then, the separate stories need to be more interesting in and of themselves, because little satisfaction is derived from the scant interplay between them. And hence my shoulder shrug as the credits rolled. Why was I supposed to see this film? What was the entertainment value, or at least the deeper meaning? OK, they discover their love in the end… so what?
The Upside: The movie is well shot and directed. Each story has within it the essentials of an interesting tale: interesting characters, places and obstacles. The conceit as a whole has merit.
The Downside: It never really amounts to much. The themes seem inadequately explored.
On the Side: Some have commented that Babel seems to be an argument for gun control. I shall spare the good reader my opinion on that.
Final Grade: C+
Matthew Alexander is a Senior Film Critic for Film School Rejects.