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July 17, 2014

Babel (2006)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Actors: Rinko Kikuchi, Adriana Barraza, Boubker Ait El Caid

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Synopsis: Four stories interlink from different corners of the world. Young Moroccan boys, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani), practice with their father’s newly acquired rifle in the wilds of the Atlas Mountains. Incredulously, Yussef hits a tourist bus seemingly miles away, and they flee from the scene of the crime. The bullet hits Susan (Cate Blanchett), holidaying in Morocco with her husband in the forlorn attempt to save their marriage. The bus pulls into the nearest provincial village as locals battle to save Susan’s life, while her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) tries to gain assistance from the US Embassy. Richard calls home in San Diego and orders Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), to continue looking after his kids despite Amelia’s son’s wedding in Mexico. Amelia foolhardily takes the two young children to the wedding in Mexico, but problems are encountered when Amelia’s hot-headed nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) is questioned by immigration officials on re-entering the US. In Japan, deaf teenager Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) struggles to connect with the world around her – especially her father, who was the man to give the hunting rifle to the Moroccan farmers in the first place.

Review: I’ve been one of the biggest advocates of the Alejandro González Iñárritu/Guillermo Arriaga cinematic ‘signature’ and genuinely reckon 21 Grams to be one of American cinema’s finest films of the last decade. With Babel, González Iñárritu and Arriaga crank their cocktail of portentous, multi-stranded narratives to its logical conclusion – a worldwide chain of catastrophe wrought by one poor Moroccan boy’s idle, feckless toying with a rifle. Sadly, with Babel, González Iñárritu and Arriaga’s aim far exceeds their reach, and we’re left with an irredeemably overdetermined, far-fetched and transparently ‘written’ piece that will no doubt add coals to the fire for those who have accused González Iñárritu and Arriaga of being little more than pretentious soap opera merchants.

While I’m perfectly comfortable with the concept of dramatic license (21 Grams’ ‘3 person chain’ of a man having caused an accident that left a woman bereaved, and a separate man now recipient of the heart of her dead husband, is an entirely legitimate and comprehensible conceit), Babel’s links are so tenuous, and you become so aware of the presence of lazy writing knitting the plot threads together that it can’t help but interfere with one’s suspension of disbelief. There are so many plot holes that are impossible to ignore: would a Mexican maid (even under duress from a strong master) really drag the two white kids she’s caring for all the way across the border into Mexico, and then, how convenient that the border police only question this set-up on the return journey (after the filmmakers have been allowed to rhetorically portray authentic Mexican culture in such a favourable light)?

And what about the Japanese section? In plot terms, it’s the most ridiculous and laughable link to the central ‘conspiracy’, although ironically, as a stand-alone section it’s probably González Iñárritu’s best piece of direction. It’s almost as if, away from political tub-thumping and trying to hammer home the morals and ironies of his story, González Iñárritu can at least start to relax into an interesting sonic and cultural mood piece about the mysterious personal pathology of a young Japanese woman (but even then she’s overloaded with too much unnecessary backstory –  not only is she mute and dumb, but she’s saddled with nymphomaniac tendencies and a late tagged-on bereavement subplot!) (July 2014)

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