2006Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal
abel is a moving film, and one well worth watching. But the movie is less notable for its quality than for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s now significantly fleshed-out personal theory of art. Inarritu has a particular set of skills, among them conjuring great performances from actors, knotting together tangentially related plots to readily meaningful effect, and effortlessly breaching a high threshold for entertainment. With his latest outing, he adds to that list the ability to make each member of a big cast resonate (see the barely-there Mexican bride and groom, Japanese dentist, and Moroccan farmer), and also the capacity to present exactly what he wants exactly when he wants to present it.
While telling stories as expansive as Robert Altman’s, Inarritu, whose previous efforts include Amores Perros and 21 Grams, works in the opposite fashion: He leaves absolutely zero breathing room to interpret images in any fashion other than how he intends. Not only does Babel manipulate four stories (one in San Diego, one in Japan, two in north Africa) into one fabric, it does so without matching chronology and with abrupt shifts in time and place. This is accomplished with confusion lingering only in purposefully selected places.
Beyond stylization, we find what drives Inarritu—visiting cruelty upon (primarily) the unwitting and the undeserving. Each of his movies involves a rigorous schedule of pain and brutality, and this makes his techniques controversial. None of this, however, is normative observation; no method is a guarantee of failure or success, and there are great and awful manipulators. There are hateful films—for instance, the Swedish human-slavery picture Lilya 4-Ever—that are hateful simply because they can be described thusly. Brecht’s Mother Courage experiments with overwhelming suffering; allegory aside, the play is successful only insofar as it confronts the excesses of that theatrical/historical bludgeoning strategy.
Speaking of alienation, Inarritu doesn’t seem to know how grating his brand of suspense can be. He gives us a break with the central plot—the accidental shooting of an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) in Morocco—by telling us up front that the victim survives the film. But we then have to see the shooting anyway, and the story continues to cut back and forth between other plots while the tourist continues to suffer; that is, each time we come back to her story, we have to see her still mid-scream. Inarritu may think he breaks tension with recourse to other, more staid storylines. This might be considered one of his central strengths, but anticipating the return to the darkest moments of on-hold plots can be depressing. The bigger problem, though, is that each story is dripping with pain, so those moments of relief are, at best, ephemeral and, at worst, false. As if Blanchett and husband Brad Pitt weren’t having a tough enough time—their brightest light an affirming marital smooch performed over a bedpan—their young children are running the Mexico-U.S. border; as if that weren’t enough, the kids are stranded in increasing intervals over Babel’s duration.
It’s one thing to bemoan bad decisions consistently made by desperate characters, but these are bad decisions made by a filmmaker. Then again, there are reasonably happy endings in some of these stories; what’s wrong with having a movie chock-full of pain, as long as it’s not drowning in it? What Babel unfortunately does is create layers of empathy that are routinely crushed by cruelty. Without giving too much away (if you’re concerned, move on to the next paragraph), Inarritu seems to think he’s doing the audience a favor by not concluding his movie with a violent death punchline.
Still, this is a piece of criticism that began with approval; like the film in question, it announced a rosy conclusion and then bore down on the negative. In truth, there’s something very human about these stories. They are truly touching, and the pain is only so affecting because the characters are made to matter. It’s not just impeccable style that does the trick here: 21 Grams is perfectly constructed, but it’s truly a sad sack of a movie, hard to care about unless foraging for a grievers’ therapy group. Babel’s fourth story—a deaf Japanese teenager lashes out at her misfortune—is almost entirely unrelated to the other ones, yet it hits just the right tones to register. Inarritu seems smarter for it than his afore-demeaned deference to the bludgeon might suggest. This movie has the ideal hints of international intrigue, simple mistakes, and desperate decisions to captivate its viewers. Despite its groans, it’s made from the stuff that good movies should be made from.
Babel is playing in theatres across the country.
By: Jonas Oransky
Published on: 2006-11-17