Babel: Speaking in Tongues 

A foreign film for people who don’t see foreign films

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga, Babel is the latest exercise in narrative and temporal collage-making from the duo previously responsible for Amores Perros and 21 Grams, and this time they’ve dumped a loving spoonful of linguistic confusion into the mix too. Filmed on three continents and in four languages (five, counting sign language), the movie is about communication — or lack thereof — between husbands and wives, parents and children, and nations divided by physical and/or ideological borders. And if you’ve seen either of Iñárritu and Arriaga’s previous collaborations, it will not surprise you to know that, in Babel, all complicit parties pay an extraordinary price for their failure to connect.

The serpentine story line goes something like this: In the Moroccan village of Tazarine, a goat herder buys a foreign-made rifle from a neighbor. The gun has a three-kilometer range and will be good for scaring off jackals, says the seller — note this, it will be important later, says the film. From there, it’s on to San Diego, where a kindly Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) cares for her two white charges (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) while preparing to attend her son’s wedding south of the border. Then, it’s back to Morocco, where the parents of the American children are in the midst of a bus trip for Western tourists — less a vacation, we soon learn, than an escape from a recent personal trauma. In a ramshackle outdoor cafe, the woman, Susan (Cate Blanchett), sighs wearily and asks her husband (Brad Pitt), “Richard, why did we come here?” Then, she grabs a soda glass from his hands and violently throws the ice cubes to the ground, shrieking, “You don’t know what kind of water is in there!” Welcome, it would seem, to the Axis of Evil H20. Finally, Babel whisks us to Tokyo, where a recent widower (Kôji Yakusho) struggles to find common ground with his moody, deaf-mute teenage daughter (Rinko Kikuchi) who, for lack of words, uses her blossoming sexuality as her language of choice.

What joins all of these characters is a single shot heard round the world: an errant bullet fired on a whim by the goat herder’s two young boys (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid), which pierces the window of the tour bus and Susan’s neck, indefinitely delaying her return to San Diego. That, in turn, puts the nanny in a bind — does she stay with the kids or schlep them with her to the wedding? — which in turn leads to one fatally bad decision and oodles of personal and geopolitical chaos. As for the Tokyo story, which for a long while seems to have no direct connection to the others, it is eventually revealed to be the first link in this escalating chain reaction. Think of it as the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in China, only instead we’re in Japan.

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As awards season shifts into high gear, you can expect to hear a lot about how “daring” Babel is in its internationalism and its willingness to let large chunks of its story play out without so much as a single word of English dialogue. And daring I suppose it is, at least for those in Hollywood who believe foreign-language pictures are things to be remade rather than released, and for those moviegoers who rank among the 2/3 of Americans without a valid passport. That’s not entirely a bad thing: The mere presence of Pitt assures that Babel will be seen by audiences whose only prior encounter with subtitles may have been an episode of Lost. And in its humanistic-bordering-on-patronizing view of its Moroccan characters, the film goes some way towards easing reservations about Middle Easterners that have proliferated in the West since 9/11.

Comparisons to Paul Haggis’ Crash (which was itself influenced by Amores Perros) are inevitable, and the two films share a similarly reductive view of human nature: If it was Haggis’ point that we’re all capable of racism whether we’re in the majority or the minority, it’s Iñárritu and Arriaga’s that we’re all capable of suffering no matter which corner of the world we hail from. This, it would seem, is the true universal language. Yet Babel has an undeniable power, even (or perhaps especially) when it’s at its most contrived and implausible, as when the nanny flees through the night into the Mexican desert, her two frightened companions in tow, after a botched re-entry at the U.S. border. We know by now that Iñárritu and Arriaga’s characters are going to be tried by fire whether it makes dramatic sense or not, but at least they come across as actual human beings and not just pieces in an elaborate sociological jigsaw puzzle.

There are fine performances throughout (though I wouldn’t number Pitt’s among them, even if his mumbly line readings and mannered running of his hands through his close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair have already struck some as the makings of ?Oscar gold). Barraza in particular is a marvel, so harrowing as she navigates the sizzling desert sands that you may feel beads of sweat forming on your forehead as you watch her. You may also be reminded that the plight of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. remains one of the most obtrusive elephants in our cultural living room.

So the most provocative thing about Babel isn’t its cacophony of foreign tongues or those funny little words on the bottom of the screen, but rather Iñárritu and Arriaga’s aggressive suggestion that we Americans and white Europeans are something less than exemplary citizens of the world, particularly in times of crisis. As Susan goes into surgery in a makeshift Tazarine hospital tent, Richard finds himself forced to make peace not with local insurgents, but with the other passengers on that bus, who whine and panic and threaten to leave, and who finally do, while a TV playing in the distance confirms their worst fears: “The American government was quick to suggest a terrorist link.” And the implication is clear that, were the shoe on the other foot, Richard and the ice-cube-shucking Susan might themselves make a clean break. There’s a toughness and a sense of man’s pettiness towards his fellow man in those scenes that’s largely soft-pedaled in the rest of Babel, which wants too much to redeem, and to find glimmers of hope on the bleak horizon. Repeatedly, Iñárritu and Arriaga stop themselves just short of suggesting that we’re all going to hell in a hand basket. Had they not — well, then Babel might really have been onto something.

BABEL | Directed by ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU | Written by GUILLERMO ARRIAGA, based on an idea by IÑÁRRITU and ARRIAGA | Produced by JON KILIK and STEVE GOLIN | Released by Paramount Vantage | ArcLight, AMC Century City, The Grove and Loews Cineplex Broadway

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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