This is the Cinema of Escalating Crises, in which the whims and misfortunes of people on any given continent can have a profound impact thousands of miles away. The film’s very first scene involves that most cinematic of weapons, a rifle. After a genial transaction involving cash and a goat, the rifle finds its way into the hands of children (This move represents the first in the film’s long chain of Bad Decisions.) And those children, having no comprehension of the special gravity of bullets, betray their own lives and the lives of others.
One of the kids takes a potshot at a passing bus — to test the gun’s range — and ends up shooting one of the passengers in the shoulder. This sets up one of the film’s many implicit observations about The World Today, which is that if those kids hadn’t been unlucky enough to shoot at a bus full of white people — in terrible fact, a bus carrying Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett — their transgression would quite possibly have gone unamplified and thus unpunished. But the plight of the American husband and his fair-haired wife — the two of them stranded in Nowhere, Morocco, she bleeding profusely and he clambering further toward his wit’s end in each of his scenes — is big international news, and because the U.S. government feels the incident has the whiff of terror about it, the ensuing investigation is swift and blunt. It’s a misapprehension born of miscommunication — or willful misunderstanding.
It’s clear how director Alejandro González Iñárritu reads it. Babel is all about failure to communicate, from a government’s rush to judgment to a border patrol’s kneejerk order-following, and about the narrow fissure between personal and political. Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga take the long view of their story, hopscotching forward and back in time and cutting easily from place to place to create a drama that’s both epic and intimate in scope. Here a scene takes place with the chickens that will feed a Mexican wedding party. There another one transpires among a clique of Japanese girls who make their way through Tokyo talking in sign language. Chieko cannot speak at all, and she’s as desperate as any of the film’s characters to make expressive human contact. She dares it with the flick of a tongue across a few centimeters’ distance — or the flash of beaver across a crowded room. If her tongue fails her, she seems hopeful that the rest of her body may be more bold.
Of all Babel’s interlocking stories, Chieko’s is the only one that feels fully realized. That may be because it’s generally lacking in the overwrought sense of tragedy and injustice that eventually smothers the other narratives competing for your attention. The Tokyo scenes are shot in a colorful, modern style that splits the difference between Wong Kar-wai and Michael Mann. (Geek note: Tokyo has a glossy Panavision look — right down to the background ellipses formed by unfocused lights — because those scenes, and only those scenes, were shot with anamorphic lenses.) The visuals suit her story, which is about loneliness, and poor judgment, in that densest of 21st Century cities.
Is it a spoiler if I mention that nothing terrible happens to Chieko? Because Iñárritu’s gimmick for three films running is Terrible Things, and in that context her story is a radical and refreshing departure from form. If her character grows decisively over the course of this story — and I think she does, thanks largely to the gentle attention of a thoughtful cop — then she’s Iñárritu’s great hope, the beacon of optimism in a sea of dour consequence.
That’s important to this film because Iñárritu is one of those directors who likes to make you gasp, to make you cringe, to have you sucking your breath in and wrinkling your brow and raging inside at the absurd carelessness of it all. Everyone in Babel is shown to be powerless, to greater and lesser degrees, but the character who gets the shortest end of the stick is Amelia, the Mexican nanny to the children of the vacationing couple who are stranded in Morocco by that one random bullet. The desperate father calls to insist that she stay with their children longer than originally planned. Amelia is stricken, because she planned to attend her son’s wedding. Raw deal. (And that’s what happens when the personal needs of the upper-class conflict with those of the lower.) So when Amelia packs up Richard’s very young, very blond children to take them to the wedding, it already seems like a bad idea. When Gael García Bernal shows up as the driver, it seems more dangerous still. Without going into great detail, it soon becomes clear that taking those children to that particular wedding was just about the worst decision that poor Amelia could have made had she lived a thousand years. You spend half the movie watching Inarritu run her through his clockwork torture chamber, waiting for him to amplify her misery into an unavoidable transaction with cruel destiny.
In the press notes for Venus, which I saw the same day as Babel (and which is a much simpler and better film), Peter O’Toole is quoted channeling another actor: “I read a statement by Bill Nighy that to keep people in the dark for three hours without telling them a joke is vulgar.” I found myself wishing Bill Nighy had something to do with Babel. Obviously concerned with the Big Issues, Iñárritu spends an inordinate amount of time screwing his characters — and his audience. It doesn’t serve him well. His interlocking structure and sociopolitical agenda recall films like Traffic and Syriana, but where the Soderbergh touch is supercool, Inarritu’s movies are sweaty from exertion. He wants you to feel all the pain, to catch every nuance of meaning. He aspires to be, perhaps, the Steven Spielberg of miserablism, and Babel is an arthouse blockbuster in high-concept black and white. But the film is so rigid in concept, so intoxicated by what its director surely reckons to be a breathtaking humanism, that its meaning is allowed to flower in the viewer’s mind only when Iñárritu finds room for ambiguity. Fortunately, we have the plight of poor Chieko to latch onto. She’s a lost soul in the city of lights — embraced by her father, haunted by the ghost of her mother, and already stripped nude for a stranger — inhabiting a final pullback that becomes the film’s haunting signature image. The rest — ugly American tourists, nasty border patrols, children shot to death in the African desert — reads as white noise.