starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho
screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga
directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover By this late date, the Magnolia-esque interconnected-lost-souls genre ought to have burned out. The films never meant anything, and when they did move us, it was in such an arbitrary, unfocused way that nothing intelligent could be gleaned from our self-interested pity. But here it is 2006 and I find myself reviewing Babel, which fills the tired bill to a chronologically-fractured T. I'd say that it isn't the worst of the genre, yet figuring out which one is suggests an academic exercise from which I'd rather be excused; suffice it to say that this globalized spin on the old saws is predictably pointless, with the added extra of none of its characters' actions resembling human behaviour even once. Instead of a powerful statement on the loneliness of individuals, we encounter a cavalier attitude towards the non-white and a prurient interest in the damaged sexuality of a teenage girl that destroys whatever patience we might have left.
The worst thing about Babel is that it gets your hopes up early on that it might actually have something to say. The film opens in Morocco with a rifle coming into the hands of a shepherd, who leaves his children in charge of both the rifle and his flock. The latter naturally get around to horseplay and fire a round at a tour bus. We're then whisked to America, where the apparent victim's illegal Mexican housekeeper is expected to take care of her kids--despite the tragedy's coinciding with her son's wedding. It appears for a moment that the two disadvantaged parties are going to be used in some cultural-economic sense, with white victim Susan (Cate Blanchett) and her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) as the fulcrum of a race and class analysis. What do the inserts of teenage deaf-mute Cheiko (Rinko Kikuchi) have to do with anything? We're game for a few moments, hoping that the matter will clear itself up.
Alas, as we watch this girl struggle (unconvincingly) with her blocked sexuality and mother's suicide, it becomes increasingly clear that the burden of guilt will not rest on the shoulders of Richard and Susan, despite that they hired someone cheap and under the table; they will seem stoic as they wait in a village for help while the rest of the (white) tourists begin to selfishly fume. The shepherd and the maid (who's left with no choice but to take the children in her charge down to Mexico for the wedding) are the ones destined for punishment. And that girl--connected to the tragedy through the ministrations of her father, Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho)--shall tease her failed conquests by... flashing them. Yep, that'll show them.
It's obvious that director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga are flying by the seat of their pants. They sort of understand that the big game for the genre is to rope in various nationalities in the hopes of looking political, but they only show their inexplicable biases. They think that if they mix their own heritage (Mexico) with the dominant culture (America), throw in an in-the-news ethnicity (Arabs) and the hipster hotspot of the moment (Japan), they'll arrive at a Big Statement. Not quite. For starters, the Japanese segments belong on the cutting-room floor, as they have only the most tenuous relationship to the interwoven tragedies of the Morocco shooting and the concurrent disaster of dragging the children across the border. And the whiteys certainly beg for more kinks than the nice-guy ciphers on offer here.
Indeed, a controlled thesis isn't on the menu. Iñárritu and Arriaga are more interested in getting poor Cheiko's kit off in fits of sensationalism, or in mining the horrible consequences of going through customs with batshit Santiago (Gael García Bernal). It gooses you emotionally every few minutes so you don't notice that the disadvantaged are the ones who end up paying (even, bizarrely, the Mexicans--and it's not as though the filmmakers treat this as an ironic conundrum) while the distracting star-power of the white Americans prevails. This deserves to be treated as a sorrowful inequity, but in Babel there are no inequities, simply dumb luck and bad choices. Pitt and Blanchett shoulder their burden with cool grace and incredible cheekbones as a metaphorical Rome burns around them. Standard practice for the emotional pornographers masquerading as world-connecting artists, I fear. Originally published: October 27, 2006.