Saturday, January 20, 2007

Review - Babel

Whatever you might say about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, there’s no doubting the director’s ambition. From its biblical title to its globe-encompassing narrative, Babel is a film which strains for profundity as it tackles a number of weighty themes - prejudice, destiny and our inability to communicate with our fellow man. But in this third collaboration with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu’s reach spectacularly exceeds his grasp, and Babel collapses in on itself as the contrived storytelling, sluggish pacing and fudged messages take their toll in the picture’s second half. Babel is a film about miscommunication which ultimately has nothing to say.

But what a spectacularly well-made mess this is; you won’t see many films this year which are crafted with so much skill and flair. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography brings the strange beauty of three vastly different continents to life, Gustavo Santaolalla’s score is excellent (if a tad repetitive), and the performances are uniformly strong, with the various non-actors working seamlessly alongside Babel’s A-list talent. This movie seems to have it all, but the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.

There are three distinct strands to Babel’s narrative. The film opens in Morocco, with two young shepherd boys (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) being handed a rifle by their father to shoot any jackals they see in the mountains while they tend to their goats. Bored, the two boys decide to amuse themselves by testing the gun’s range, and they start taking pot-shots at the cars below. One of these bullets flies into the window of a passing coach and enters the shoulder of Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American tourist who is here with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) in a bid to rescue their ailing marriage. With his wife slowly bleeding to death, Richard embarks on a race against time to find a local doctor who can save the rapidly weakening Susan.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (or, more accurately, California), Richard and Susan’s children are in the care of Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican woman who has been a nanny to young Debbie and Mike since they were born. Amelia had made plans to travel back to Mexico to attend her son’s wedding, but the incident involving Richard and Susan has disrupted her plans and her attempts to find a friend or neighbour who can look after the kids for the day come to nought. When Amelia’s nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) turns up to drive her home, he’s understandably surprised to see the two children coming along for the ride.

These two sections of the film share a very clear link, but the third, and most interesting part of Babel takes place in Japan, and it seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the picture. Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a deaf-mute schoolgirl who has shared a difficult relationship with her father (Kôji Yakusho) since her mother’s suicide. Despite her attractiveness few boys want anything to do with her when they find out about her disability, and Chieko becomes desperate for some sort of human connection, debasing herself in an effort to gain it; she makes advances on her dentist and flashes her vagina to a group of teenage boys. Chieko is a volatile bundle of raging hormones, untapped frustration and sexual longing, and Kikuchi is simply stunning in a challenging and somewhat degrading role. But even though Chieko’s condition makes the theme of communication explicit, it’s still hard to see where exactly this part of the jigsaw is supposed to fit into the Babel puzzle.

The scenes in Japan have absolutely nothing to do with the scenes taking place in Africa or America, and when Arriaga does finally try to draw the whole thing together, the link he provides is so tenuous it’s almost laughable. In a way, this link sums up Babel’s major failing; Arriaga’s screenplay is an absurdly schematic creation which sacrifices character development and plausibility as it pushes its story through ever more contrived hoops. As the film progresses, much of Arriaga’s narrative rests on various characters making stupid decisions - particularly in the Mexican strand of the film - and as Babel forces everyone into various pits of despair it becomes increasingly difficult to care about any of their fates.

This is not the fault of the actors, who are all admirably committed to the cause. The presence of Hollywood stars Pitt and Blanchett could have felt incongruous against the unknown actors who populate much of the film, but they both give earthy, vanity-free performances. However, they aren’t exactly given a great deal to do other than continually push themselves through the emotional wringer, and both actors have been allowed to do much better work in the past. In Mexico, Gael Garcia Bernal is an engaging, if rather uninteresting presence, at least until his character is forced to arbitrarily lose his head in order to service another plot development; and Barraza (who played Bernal’s mother in Amores Perros) is moving in one of the film’s more sympathetic roles.

But Babel’s fatalism and endlessly miserable approach dilutes the intended impact of these stories, and so does Iñárritu’s jumbled narrative which - as in the awful 21 Grams - comes across as a pointless affectation. The decision to hop between countries as if these incidents were happening concurrently, when they obviously aren’t, adds nothing to the overall piece, and it occasionally has a detrimental effect - an early phone call from Brad Pitt suggests to the viewer that Blanchett’s character will be OK, which makes the long scenes in which she subsequently writhes in agony seem even more purposeless. I always felt that the muddled structure of 21 Grams disguised the absurdity of that film’s melodramatic plotting, while here it simply makes the film feel bloated.

Iñárritu’s style didn’t always have this effect. At 153 minutes Amores Perros runs ten minutes longer than Babel and almost half an hour longer than 21 Grams, and yet when I re-watched it recently I was struck by how much tighter, more incisive and more exhilarating that film remained in comparison with the director’s subsequent efforts. Amores Perros was propelled by richly drawn characters and a breakneck energy which is absent from the director’s grimly lugubrious later works, and while Arriaga and Iñárritu have grown more ambitious since their first collaboration, their results haven’t come close to matching the impact of that extraordinary film.

The best moments in Babel are the ones which have least to do with Arriaga’s torturous narrative, the ones in which Iñárritu can simply display his undeniable grasp of filmmaking language. There’s one superb moment in a Japanese nightclub in which the dance music gradually grows louder until it’s almost overwhelming, and then the director abruptly pulls the sound as he cuts to Chieko’s point of view. The silence is deafening. Iñárritu also has an intuitive ability to fully immerse the viewers into the sights and sounds of whatever locale the action happens to be occurring in, and the vibrant sequences where he simply allows things to unfold at a Mexican wedding, a Moroccan village or the streets of Tokyo are remarkably alive with feeling and atmosphere.

These moments are fleeting bright spots in a relentlessly sorrowful picture though, and Babel’s final section is particularly interminable, with the slack editing allowing almost every scene to run on longer than it needs to. Ever since 21 Grams Arriaga and Iñárritu seem to believe that lingering on repeated scenes of suffering and anguish is enough to be taken as some sort of statement on the human condition - but Babel is artifice, not art. It has no meaning beyond some “we’re all the same/can’t we just get along” moralising, and the lack of emotional impact the film offers at the close makes its 140 gruelling minutes seem rather unedifying. Iñárritu is still one of the most naturally gifted directors working in cinema today, and perhaps the rumours of an irrevocable split with Guillermo Arriaga could be the impetus he needs to really exploit his potential; forcing him to move into new territory which will hopefully be unmarked by such trite and heavy-handed storytelling. All the world’s a stage for Iñárritu, but all Arriaga’s men and women are merely pawns.