4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Sometimes the Motion Picture Academy gets things right. Two of the actresses in “Babel,” Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza Babel were up for Oscars this year. Neither stood a chance against the omnipresent Jennifer Hudson, but having two nominees in one category speaks for itself. Pre-teen non-actor Boubker Ait El Caid deserved a nod for Best Supporting Actor too. (But I suppose the Academy knows all too well what happens to kid actors that get too much too soon – their careers fall more often than Brittany Spears). “Babel” is the third film in a trilogy from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga that began with “Amores Perros” and continued with the moving “21 Grams.” The title refers to a story in The Bible about an ancient civilization that planned to build a tower that would reach so high it would challenge God’s supremacy. God was not amused and turned the project into a parking lot by confusing their language, making it impossible for the builders to communicate. “Babel” follows a similar premise -- characters speak in rapid fire, unintelligible tongues and sign language, turning the plot into a series of fish out of water scenarios.
The movie has three revolving tales that spin in and out of sequence, and despite the action being separated by thousands of miles in either direction, the stories intersect and blend together like a finely woven tapestry. “Babel’s” plot is held together by a gun, and what happens to the families who have direct and indirect contact with it. The story begins in a desolate area in Morocco when a small-time gun dealer Hassan (smarmy Abdelkader Bara) sells a rifle to sheep herder Adullah (an oblivious Amit Murjani). Without much of an afterthought Abdullah gives the expensive rifle to his two sons, the bullying Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and coming-of-age Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) to chase away the jackals feeding on his herd of goats. The brothers test it out on a nearby pile of rocks, with older brother Ahmed displaying the shooting accuracy of F Troop. Yussef takes the rifle from his brother, aiming it in the direction of an oncoming bus. The bullet crashes through the window of the bus, injuring American tourist Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett, who spends most of the film bleary-eyed and on her back.) Her sudden, traumatic shooting sends shock waves through the media, who label the incident a terrorist attack. While the media feasts on the story, Susan and her husband Richard (spittle-spraying Brad Pitt in ugly American mode) are left to fend for themselves when their tour bus deposits them in a small village and takes off. The couple must endure a number of obstacles before help can arrive, including political red tape, their inability to communicate (even with those who are trying to help), and primitive bedside care.
Fearing reprisals from the U.S., the Moroccan government sends out the police to investigate the incident. After beating a confession from Hassan, they track down Adullah and his sons, who are now on the run, hunted like the jackals they sought to eradicate. Warning shots are fired and Abdullah attempts to surrender. Panicking, the boys fire at the police, who don’t hesitate to shoot back, think they’re firing at Abdullah. Crack-shot Yussef retaliates by picking off an officer, setting in motion a tragic conclusion.
A second plot follows Chieko(Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf Japanese teenage girl who has developed a rebellious streak following her mother’s suicide. Mistaking her father’s private grief for a lack understanding or caring, teased and shunned by boy’s her own age, Cheiko starts looking for love in all the wrong places, flashing teenage boys like a teenage Sharon Stone. She tries to seduce her dentist, who is interested in drilling her teeth and not her (sorry, couldn’t resist), and attempts to bed police detective Kenji Mamiya (Satoshi Nikaido), who comes to her apartment to question Chieko's father about a rifle he gave to his tour guide in Morocco.
The third plot involves Richard and Susan's nanny, Amelia (a stalwart Adriana Barraza) who receives a call from Richard saying the couple is stranded in Morocco, jeopardizing her plans to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. Unable to find a sitter for the children, she takes them along. Rather than stay overnight in Mexico with the children, Amelia decides to travel back across the border with her sketchy nephew Santiago (party hearty Gael Garcia Bernal) who is drunk and rightfully nervous about any one-on-one contact with the border patrol. Amelia hitching a ride with her nephew brings to mind the last words of the navigator on the Titanic: “I saw it coming, I just couldn’t get out of the way.”
Santiago and Amelia are detained at the border by a ridgid border patrol officer (boot-strapping Clifton Collins, Jr.) who conducts a nerve-wracking investigation. After a second officer rifles through Santiago’s trunk, Collins returns with his ire up. Told to pull over for a second inspection, Santiago panics, drving through police barriers as if he was Richard Petty auditioning for a demolition derby. After putting some distance between himself and the police, Santiago leaves Amelia and the children in the desert, promising to come back. You can hear the hand of fate slam the door of Santiago’s car as he burns rubber, stranding his anunt and the children without food or water. Amelia has no shot at making employee of the month, and must be suffering from heat stroke because she decides to leave the children alone to search for help. Dehydrated, lost (not to mention walking through the sand in high heels), Amelia finally encounters a Border Patrol Officer (the always dependable Michael Pena). Trusting that the officer is more interested in finding the children than arresting her is Amelia’s final and biggest mistake. The children are found, but any hope for leniancy for Amelia is lost. Amelia’s story and her fate is easily the most compelling, heartbreaking plot in the movie. Maybe we know someone whose been there, maybe one of our ancestors suffered the same indignity decades ago, but as Amelia pleads her case to an unyielding by-the-book bureaucrat you can’t help feel sorry for her.
The international cast of unknowns steals the movie away from superstars Pitt and Blanchett, who haven’t exactly forgotten how to act. Pitt hasn’t been much more than a plastic pretty boy since “Seven.” Here he shows a range of emotions (!) – disappointment at his dying marriage with Blanchett, concern over her condition, face-busting rage when the other toutists decide to leave them behind, stress and wit’s-end exhaustion when he makes the phone call to Amelia to tell her to take care of the children. Scruffy and puffy-eyed Pitt looks and acts like a desperate man. A fine acting job and he gets to go home to Angelina Jolie. Cate Blanchett has little to do other than moan a lot, but the scene in which an old woman administers an “anesthetic” the old fashioned way is amusing. When Blanchett picks at the open sore of her troubled marriage, it’s the unsaid hurt between her and Pitt that makes their characters believable.
Rinko Kikuchi is a rare find. She pulls you into the world of a troubled, deaf mute, particularly in the scene in which bares her soul and her body to Detective Mimiya. Her pain at being rejected isn’t expressed in words, but rather a series of wails and devastated looks that render subtitles unecessary. Boubker Ait El Caid should just quit school now, because acting is his calling. Despite the slight hinderance of portraying a character through subtitles, his inexeprience, and his young age, El Caid gives a commendable performance, capturing the frustrations and simple joys of a boy on the verge of becoming a man. Although he chaffes under his brother’s bullying, he still loves and respects him. Like most boys his age, he’s sexually curious. He spys on one of the village girls as she dresses (with her approval), an act which serves as the real reason his older brother’s been a little rough on him lately. Caid gets to display more emotion than most of the other characters and does so convincingly.
There are a few scenes that rate highly on the shock value scale. Two involve Santaigo (Bernal) whose idea of livening up a party forshadows his recklessness. He also traumatizes the Smith’s son by demonstrating whether a chicken can still cross the road without it’s head.
The movie’s age old message – the man is keeping us down -- may be a bit heavy handed for some, but the truth hurts, and in this case enlightens. “Babel” is a first rate film that loses nothing in the translation.