For those sick of the trend of multi-threaded stories with varying timelines, the latest film to come from the collaboration of writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu (who previously combined on both 21 Grams and Amores perros) may well test the patience. To miss a film of this beauty and power would be a mistake, however, as Babel is extremely moving and absolutely engrossing.
Commencing with the event that triggers disasters across several continents and cultures, Babel is about interconnectedness and, more specifically, the consequences of those connections. Communication is the theme, and the failure to communicate that leads to one misunderstanding after another and ultimately to such sorrow for so many. Each single act or misjudgement is insubstantial of itself, but over time contributes to a cascading wave of retribution and loss, and all can be traced back to simple miscommunication.
In many respects, this could have come across as trite and overly convenient, and yet Iñárritu skilfully guides his story forward, ever so gradually building a truly forceful film. The neatly interwoven storylines, and the subplots within each, all contribute to an increasing sense of disquiet before the final resolutions release the pressure that has been brought to bear.
The four tales are all beautifully told and impressively played, and there is a brief moment of wrenching anguish each time the focus shifts to another storyline, before the intriguing and moving material of the newer one supplants that feeling of loss. Impressively for a film in this form, each story more than holds its own among its peers, and there isn’t a weak link to diminish the power. Each of the four stories could stand alone as a short film, and there is never the sense that one or other is more or less important – the problem of ‘thread neglect’ that plagues a film like Love Actually is certainly not evident here.
The most intriguing of the stories concerns Chieko, a deaf-mute Japanese teenager who seeks only acceptance among her peers. Her inability to communicate with those around her forces her to seek more and more drastic ways to reach out, and her evolving sexuality allows her a form of self expression she hasn’t been aware of to date. Masterfully played by Rinko Kikuchi, Chieko’s plight is made even more accessible by the soundtrack showing us life as seen through her eyes. One can’t help but be moved by her story of loneliness.
Brad Pitt is surprisingly powerful in his dramatic role, and although the script clearly requires it of her and she is excellent in what she does, Cate Blanchett is somewhat underutilised. Another to shine is Adriana Barraza, who delivers a performance as Amelia that is simply heartbreaking. The two young men playing the Moroccan goatherds (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid) are also very impressive indeed.
Babel is not a light ‘popcorn flick’ for a Friday night, and in many respects is not very easy to watch. It does have much to offer in terms of performances, direction and content, and is highly recommended. The best film I have seen in 2006.Rating: