The Reeler


October 27, 2006


The lessons of Babel are clear; the lessons of Babel infinitely, infuriatingly less so.

The titular reference made by Babel, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's maddening final installment in his so-called "death trilogy" (along with Amores Perros and 21 Grams), is a grand one, though the film itself gives only passing attention to its supposed inspiration. It's a little easier to forgive sloppy biblical allusions, apparently, when they don't involve sitting through nearly two and a half hours of random, senseless punishment, all doled out with one accusing eye on the viewer. A better title for this film would have been Murphy's Law, as Inarritu has a relentless grip on the banality of its tenets.

In the Book of Genesis, Babel's united people just wanted to get a little closer to God, and thus conspired to build a tower high enough to pay a house call. Their hubris resulted in a supernatural bitchslap that scattered them across the planet with newly foreign tongues. In Gonzalez Iñárritu's Babel, a lot of the characters speak different languages and live on different continents, but that's pretty much where the allusive rigor ends. His now trademark free hand with narrative time and space is evident, but where it has previously served a higher purpose, i.e. the story, the hoped-for (nay, longed-for) payoff for all the goosestepping never comes, and the result is a film that is merely fractured.

Cate Blanchett and an extra-crinkly Brad Pitt play Susan and Richard, a grieving San Diego couple exchanging snippets of bad soap opera dialogue over couscous and impromptu gunshot surgery during a trip to Morocco. Susan, having just lost a baby, was wounded in the neck while on a tour bus, struck by a bullet fired by one of two young brothers in the mountains who were playing around with a rifle their father bought from a local, who received it as a gift from a hobby-hunter Japanese businessman, whose daughter, a deaf teenage girl in Tokyo, has been flashing random strangers in her desperation to be touched since her mother committed suicide.

Richard and Susan's two Precious Moments figurines "children" are cared for by Amelia (Amores Perros's radiant Adriana Barraza), their Mexican nanny, but when Richard and Susan are delayed, Amelia decides to take the children across the border with her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) so she can attend her son's wedding. The film briefly animates in these scenes, and it is infectiously clear that for Gonzalez Iñárritu, Mexico is life in all its warm and gaudy, cheesed-out glory. The film was shot entirely on location, and though the Tokyo scenes are hypnotic in their own right (as is an astonishing performance by the young Rinko Kikuchi), it's disheartening to leave Mexico (as it is for the characters, who have border trouble) for even more pointless misery in Morocco.

Babel premiered at Cannes (where Gonzalez Iñárritu earned Best Director honors) and was also featured at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was met with rapture and hyperbole. Perhaps the re-teaming of the director and his collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, had the hordes willing to forgive a multitude (or two) of sins, and each segment's personalized look is undeniably a tour de force of Gonzalez Iñárritu's "observe and absorb" approach to location filming. The problem, as the film itself teases out at tedious length, is one of connection: We are urged, almost condemned, to reach great heights of hazy emotion with and for these characters, and we are ultimately given a glimpse of some larger, tragic mesh at work -- "if only they all knew…" But knew what? The lessons of Babel are clear; the lessons of Babel infinitely, infuriatingly less so. Don't buy a gun? Don't go to Morocco? Don't booty call a detective? Don't drop 10th grade Spanish?

Your guess is as good as mine. Here's the only thing I know for sure: if you've ever wanted to see Brad Pitt jimmy Cate Blanchett onto a bedpan on a dirty floor in some godforsaken mountain village in Morocco, now is your chance.

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