You might expect a film titled “Babel” (relating to the Biblical Tower of Babel) to explore language barriers, miscommunications, and lack of communication. But would you expect a movie about communication to take an uncomfortably long 142 minutes to get the point across?
Paramount Vantage’s “Babel” is the latest film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who also served as co-producer with Steve Golin and Jon Kilik. The story begins in a desolate region in the Moroccan desert where two brainless boys decide to see how far a new rifle can fire by using a tour bus full of people as target practice. One bullet critically injures an American woman (Cate Blanchett) who along with her husband (Brad Pitt) is recovering from the death of their infant. This new tragedy follows a series of earlier tragedies (including the suicide of a Japanese woman) and begins another series of tragedies (including the deportation of the couple’s illegal immigrant nanny, played beautifully by Adriana Barraza).
With the loud, abrasive action jumping back and forth through time, and from place to place (Morocco, Japan, America, and Mexico), and from one story to another, this is an exhausting film to follow. In one story, the two Moroccan boys and their dysfunctional family try to escape justice. In a related, but separate story, the American couple (portrayed with great sincerity and passion by Pitt and Blanchett) struggle in a life-or-death situation aided by the incompetent, though sympathetic, locals in a nearby village. Meanwhile in California, the couple’s children are being taken care of by a loving Mexican nanny who foolishly takes the children with her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) to a wild wedding party across the border. In yet another story, with the most tenuous of thematic threads to link them, a teenaged deaf-mute Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) runs around the city without panties trying to lose her virginity.
Each story reveals characters with communication problems: The American couple can’t talk about the baby’s death or the husband’s earlier desertion; the boys have never told their parents about their sister’s incestuous peep shows, the nanny is not only ignorant of the English language, but of American laws; the Japanese girl, who besides having difficulty communicating with anyone who’s not deaf, has a strange and strained relationship with her father.
It takes a very long time to connect all the stories – at least 20 minutes easily could have been edited out – and the payoff may not be worth the wait for some people. The acting is terrific throughout the film, though (particularly scenes with the American couple after the shooting, and any scene involving the nanny). This raw, depressing drama earns its R rating by providing in-your-face depictions of violence, nudity, survival, desperation, fear, and isolation.