The unwieldy, dense and often elusive films of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his longtime creative partner Guillermo Arriaga ask a lot of the casual moviegoer. First, they’re long - Babel is almost two-and-a-half hours. Second, they employ fragmented narratives that only come together slowly, if at all. And third, their characters’ emotions tend to overpower their motivations, leaving the latter more blurred than most of us are used to. But if at times the sheer esthetic power of Iñárritu’s vision threatens to smother the life out of his ideas, his movies are still worth seeing. His narrative style may be a mess, but it’s the most gorgeous mess you’re ever likely to see.

Not that Babel’s multi-character, multi-language narrative is a mess, exactly, but it does have more than his usual number of sketchy personalities and paper thin back stories. Unfolding in four locations on three continents, the movie uses the path and provenance of a single bullet to link more than a dozen disparate lives. In Morocco, a couple of bored goat herders play dangerous games with the rifle their father has given them to kill jackals; in San Diego, the illegal Mexican nanny of an affluent couple crosses the border to Tijuana with her two young charges to attend her son’s wedding; and in Tokyo, an angry, motherless deaf girl behaves in increasingly violent ways as a reaction to her sensory prison. All of these situations will provoke tragedies, some more difficult to accept than others.

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Babel is the third instalment (after Amores Perros and 21 Grams) in what Iñárritu once called his death trilogy, and now, having undergone his own emotional journey, refers to as his life trilogy. Children are the thread that holds the movie together, infusing its brooding themes of terrorism and American entitlement with hopefulness his previous films lack. The cast is uniformly terrific; Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a traumatized couple, touring Morocco to escape the pain of a dead baby, only to be faced with an even greater terror; Adriana Barraza, in the film’s most affecting storyline, as the loving nanny whose innocent trip home will change her life forever; and Rinko Kikuchi as the deaf mute teenager whose disability and sexual aggression become metaphors for our inability to communicate with separate cultures other than through sex and violence.

Assisted by the remarkable cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Iñárritu moves seamlessly from the arid isolation of a Moroccan village to the gleaming modernity of Tokyo to the colorful chaos of Tijuana, his camera alternately capturing scenes of hope and despair. In one vivid sequence lasting almost 10 minutes, he darts back and forth between the Mexican wedding and a Japanese nightclub, the similarities between the dancing crowds and lively music more obvious than their differences. A native of Mexico City, Iñárritu photographs his south-of-the-border scenes with a rhapsodic vitality and exuberance that’s nothing short of breathtaking.

Contemplative and mournful, Babel is a sweeping epic of disquiet and dislocation that struggles to address the realities of a post-9/11 world. Opening with the Genesis quote that furnishes the movie’s title and closing with a dedication to his children, Iñárritu fills the gap with a grippingly ambitious and philosophical film as resonant in its flaws as its triumphs.

Don’t miss it.

Reviewed on: 23 Jan 2007
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Modern melodrama, tracing four interlocking stories across three continents.
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Read more Babel reviews:

Chris *****
Anton Bitel ****1/2

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Guillermo Arriaga

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Elle Fanning, Mohamed Akhezam, Nathan Gamble, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani

Year: 2006

Runtime: 143 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/Mexico


London 2006

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