Babel

The Bible says God was angry when man tried to reach heaven by building a tower (later named Babel); he stopped the work by devising different languages that made understanding impossible. Babel came to mean noise and miscommunication.

Some things never change. The gifted Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his remarkable screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga - this film completes the brilliant trilogy they began with Amores Perros and 21 Grams - have applied the concept of Babel to the way we live now, in a world threatened by terrorism and divided by language, race, money and religion. Heavy going? Not if you want to see something extraordinary. In the year's richest, most complex and ultimately most heartbreaking film, Inarritu invites us to get past the babble of modern civilization and start listening to each other.

This film throws us into the lives of broken families from Morocco to Tokyo, from posh San Diego to the poverty across the Mexican border. The jangle of dialects assaults our ears. Sign language is introduced. Time frames are splintered to add to the disorientation. But pay attention and these parallel lines do meet.

The actors work wonders in guiding us through the maze. Brad Pitt's Richard and Cate Blanchett's Susan are a San Diego couple on a healing trip to Morocco after their baby's death. Their two older kids are home with the maid, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who defies Richard and the law by letting her firebrand nephew (Gael Garc'a Bernal) drive her and the kids into Mexico for a wedding.

The pivotal event occurs when Susan, on a tour bus with Richard, is shot in the shoulder. The bullet comes from a hunting rifle that a goat herder gave to his sons, one of whom fires wildly at the bus from a hillside. But with Susan bleeding and near death in a remote village and Richard phoning his rage to the U.S. embassy, the shooting is media-hyped into a terrorist incident. The impact stretches to Tokyo, where a father (Koji Yakusho) coping with the suicide of his wife and the promiscuity of his deaf-mute daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), finds himself connected to the gun that shot Susan.

There is no way for a review to encompass the beautifully integrated, soul-searching portrait that Inarritu paints of a world in crisis. Pitt, raw and emotionally bruised, gives his most mature and moving performance to date. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto brings a poet's eye to the images. Stranded at the Mexican border, a victim of Bush immigration policy, Barraza leaves you shattered. At an ear-busting Tokyo disco, the sound goes dead so we hear only what Chieko hears. Kikuchi is unforgettable, nailing every nuance in her role. Just try to erase the sight of her, standing naked and vulnerable on a high-rise balcony while an uncaring city bustles below. All of Babel is like this — it's impossible to shake.

From The Archives Issue 312: March 6, 1980