November 13, 2006 -- “Babel” is a multi-threaded movie reminiscent of Strother Martin's most famous movie line ever, which is, “What we have here is failure to communicate.” Its about failure of a husband and wife to talk about the death of their child, failure of a father and daughter to discuss the death of wife and mother, failure of governments to communicate clearly with each other -- these things are all woven into a sprawling, unwieldy film about pain, suffering and death. Besides black depression and desperation there are few other emotional notes in this dirge of a film. Thankfully, the conclusion of these three stories is not as depressing as the rest of the film.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, it is similar in tone to his earlier film, “21 Grams,” but not as effective. It is considered the third part of a trilogy of films that began with “Amores Perros.” “Babel” takes place in three locations, Morocco, Japan and Mexico. In Morocco, a married couple, Richard (Brad Pitt of “Troy”) and Susan (Cate Blanchett of the “Lord of the Rings” movies) is on vacation, riding a tour bus, when a bullet strikes Susan. Gravely injured, Susan is taken to a nearby village where the lone doctor tries to save her life. Frantically, Richard tries to summon an ambulance, but misunderstandings between the Moroccan government and the United States delays medical help. Tourists on the bus become impatient and the tour abandons Richard and Susan to their fate.
Part of the problem between Morocco and the U.S. is that American officials are convinced the shooting was an act of terrorism. Pressure is put on the Moroccan government to solve the crime quickly, leading to the beating of a number of usual suspects. It wasn't terrorists at all who fired the shot. The shot was fired from a rifle given to a Moroccan hunting guide by a Japanese hunter. Caught up in the international incident are the young brothers Yussef and Ahmed (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) along with their entire family. The gun that connects them all brings the Japanese part of the story into play. The Japanese hunter, Yasijuro (Koji Yashuko “Memoirs of a Geisha”), recently widowed due to suicide, is having trouble with his unruly deaf daughter, Chieko (played by Rinko Kikuchi). She is having problems dealing with the death of her mother and her own emerging sexuality. This leads to a number of nude scenes in the film.
The last part of the story has to do with the children of Richard and Susan, who are still back in the United States, under the care of an overburdened nanny, Adriana Barraza (“Amores Perros”). Adriana needs to get to her son's wedding, but can't find a responsible person to take care of the children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble). Adriana, desperate, decides to take the children with her to the wedding across the border into Mexico. Everything works fine, until they try to get back to the United States, that's when they run into trouble with the border patrol. They end up on a wild ride into the desert north of the Mexican border. Abandoned by their driver, Santiago (Gael García Bernal, “Amores Perros”), Adriana makes a desperate journey to save the children.
The thread that ties these different plot elements together is pretty thin. When you put them all into the film's centrifuge, they tend to come flying apart. The center cannot hold. The film has some great performances and it has something to say about the failure of people and governments to communicate. It also has something to say about the policies of the the U.S. government toward a vast labor force composed of illegal immigrants and the same government's preoccupation with terrorism. There are some wonderful moments in the film that speak eloquently to these issues. Other scenes generate an almost painful level of tension. The problem is that the sum of all these parts is less than the whole. Despite all this high drama, the film's central theme is diluted because of this scattergun approach. This film rates a C+.
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