As its title suggests, Babel is about the varieties and limits of communication. More specifically, it's about the language of violence and fear, the ways that physical pain, national boundaries and class distinctions shape relationships. The structure is grand, comprising four stories stretched across places and times, their links revealed at last in a kind of thematic crescendo. But its specific moments are often brilliant, little bits of intimacy conjured of color and light.
Like director Alejandro GonzÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡lez IÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â±ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡rritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's previous films (Amores Perros and 21 Grams), this one is sometimes a too-clever puzzle, with causes and effects elaborately detailed and oddly irrelevant. The stories all concern children caught up in circumstances beyond their easy comprehension, while adults struggle to maintain some semblance of illusory order. As the film begins, Richard (Brad Pitt) and his wife Susan (Cate Blanchett) have traveled to Morocco in an effort to get over a traumatic loss. They've left two children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), at home in San Diego, under care of their housekeeper Amelia (Adriana Barraza).
Tragedy strikes when a young goatherd, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), shoots at the American tourists' bus. The boy and his older brother Ahmed (Said Tarchani) hardly imagine the consequences, but the effect is immediate: Susan is shot in the neck, her pretty cotton blouse stained with dark blood as Richard tries to contain calamity. When the bus pulls into the nearest village, Richard calls relatives, who call the embassy and the press. An ambulance and then a helicopter are summoned, and while they take time to arrive, it's clear that a wounded white American warrants special treatment, even in this remote area. As his fellow tourists worry that they too are endangered by the very strangeness of their environment, he insists that they not leave him without transport.
Richard also calls Amelia, but he doesn't disclose details, only that he and Susan are delayed. In turn, she doesn't tell him her own need to travel to Mexico for her son's wedding. Trying to manage conflicting demands, she brings the kids along, an idea questioned even by her reckless nephew, Santiago (Gael GarcÃƒÆ’Ã‚Âa Bernal). Still, he drives them across the border. At the wedding, Mike and Debbie are both startled and charmed: Revelers sing, dance and shoot rifles into the air, the noise frightening but also thrilling, unlike anything they've heard before.
Across the world, in Tokyo, another sort of violence haunts a high school student named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Struggling with her mother's suicide and rejecting her too-often-absent father Yasujiro (KÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â´ji Yakusho), Chieko, who is deaf, feels increasingly isolated. The movie renders her experience in ways that seem sometimes gimmicky, at other times poignant, observing her from across a room, then taking her mostly soundless perspective. One spectacular set-piece has her entering a nightclub. As the soundtrack cuts from her silence to a booming synthy dance sound, the camera cuts from her point of view (bodies and lights pulsing) to her expectant face. At this moment, all things seem possible, but in the next instant, when Chieko believes she's been betrayed by a girlfriend, her past and future collapse into one another.
Rushing into the dark night and the stillness of her father's high-rise apartment, Chieko tries once again to communicate, this time with a young policeman who she assumes is investigating her mother's death. When she desperately offers herself to him, vulnerable and achingly silent, he's at once intrigued and terrified. He can't understand her, and their few moments together are more painful than promising, even as they're also perversely intimate.
As this connection is premised at least partly on instances of violence and their ongoing effects, Babel suggests that violence forges its own language, a means to closeness across distances of experience, location and time. The idea is more nuanced than any single film might hope to capture, and this one occasionally strains with the effort, its narrative and thematic links both contrived and tenuous.
And yet, scene for scene, Babel is often thrilling. Amelia's journey back and forth across borders with the white children is convoluted, but it leads to a single image her red dress glimpsed by a border patrol officer, a bizarre and poetic specter in the desert that resonates quite beyond the limits of her plot, her lesson and her utter shame. Similarly, the stunning nonresolution of Chieko's story (a note she writes to the young inspector, never revealed to the rest of us) lingers in the close-up of his face as he reads, his expression gentle and moved, if not precisely legible.
Directed by Alejandro GonzÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡les IÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â±ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡rrituA Paramount Vantage releaseOpens Friday at Ritz Five