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"BABEL"
(2006) (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Various strangers' lives are affected and become intertwined by an act of violence.
PLOT:
Richard (BRAD PITT) and Susan Jones (CATE BLANCHETT) are an unhappily married couple traveling in Morocco trying to get over the recent loss of one of their kids. Unbeknownst to them, sheepherder Abdullah (MUSTAPHA RACHIDI) has recently purchased a high-powered rifle from Hassan (ABDELKADER BARA) for his boys Ahmed (SAID TARCHANI) and Yussef (BOUBKER AIT EL CAID) to protect their herd from hungry jackals.

As the Jones' tour bus ends up traveling near the family's grazing grounds, Yussef -- when not enjoying a peek at his sister, Zohra (WAHIBA SAHMI) -- decides to test the rifle's range, resulting in Susan accidentally being shot and badly wounded. Desperate to get her help, Richard has the bus divert to a nearby village where he tries to get help from the far-off American embassy.

At the same time, Mexican immigrant Amelia (ADRIANA BARRAZA) is a housekeeper and nanny in San Diego caring for siblings Debbie (ELI FANNING) and Mike (NATHAN GAMBLE). Her son is getting married south of the border, and unable to find anyone to baby-sit the kids, she and her reckless nephew Santiago (GAEL GARCÍA BERNAL) drive them into Mexico for the festivities, unaware of the difficulties they'll face getting back.

Meanwhile, Chieko (RINKO KIKUCHI) is a Japanese teen who enjoys hanging out with her friends, but feels isolated not only by being deaf, but also by the recent death of her mother that's left her father, Yasujiro (KÔJI YAKUSHO), emotionally distant and often not home.

With that single shot from Yussef's rifle, all of their lives become intertwined and forever affected by that act of violence.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
"In history an additional result is commonly produced by human actions beyond that which they aim at and obtain-that which they immediately recognize and desire. They gratify their own interest; but something further is thereby accomplished, latent in the actions in question, though not present to their consciousness, and not included in their design."

19th century German philosopher Georg Hegel's view on cause and effect are reflected in director Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Babel," an engrossing, multi-layered, cross-cultural look at how a series of seemingly innocuous or independent acts have long reaching repercussions well beyond those who initiate them. Like his previous works, "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," the film contains a multitude of characters and storylines that revolve around and intersect one another, although not always in the same temporal moment.

Symbolically named for the Old Testament city where a tower to Heaven was never completed due to lingual misunderstandings (as well as the latter day definition of a confusion of sounds or noises), the film is certainly the filmmaker's most ambitious project to date. Interestingly, and despite the nonlinear setup and constant switching between storylines that would seem to suggest otherwise, the puzzle solving aspect of how all of the character and story pieces fit together isn't as important this time around.

Instead, it's all about communication or the lack thereof and the consequences of that. The husband and wife characters played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are barely on speaking terms as they try to deal with the recent and sudden lose of a young son. A dire incident involving them is then misinterpreted by government officials, thus resulting in a crucial and possibly life-threatening delay.

Mustapha Rachidi's sheepherder gives his sons a high-powered rifle to ward off jackals, but doesn't tell them to be careful with it. As a result, the boys -- Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani -- try to test the seller's claim of the gun's range, resulting in disaster.

When a domestic employer doesn't tell his housekeeper and nanny -- played by Adriana Barraza -- of the tragedy that's befallen him, she makes a decision that will end up changing her life forever, particularly when she takes the word of her nephew -- Gael García Bernal -- about his state of sobriety.

And in the most symbolic of the storylines, Rinko Kikuchi plays a Japanese girl whose deafness defines her in the eyes of others and thus in the way she looks at herself, a point driven home in one scene by the contrast between her and our experience of the story taking her into a bass-thumping discotheque.

Coupled with all of that, Guillermo Arriaga's screenplay also examines -- in what's probably the film's lone weak element that's spread across the storylines to varying degrees -- the stupid choices people can make and, natch, the results thereof. For instance, why would the grieving married couple head off to Morocco and travel about on a cramped tour bus filled with other foreigners?

Why would a nanny take her young charges across an international border and then let her intoxicated nephew try to drive them back? There are plausible answers for those questions, but they could very well take the viewer out of the proceedings -- even if just for a moment - while trying to assess why and whether some actions would be undertaken.

Part of the answer, of course, is that the characters are human and thus capable of having lapses of judgment, being selfish, or just being blinded or oblivious to the possible results of their actions. While not exactly an easy or what would otherwise deem an entertaining watch, Arriaga's various stories and thus the overall film become a compelling experience.

Taking advantage of solid performances from all involved, the filmmakers have created such interesting characters and intriguing, riveting, and/or heartbreaking storylines that all of the four major stories easily could have been expanded into their own, feature-length film. All of which -- in a world where many filmmakers have a hard time doing that with A-list stars, massive budgets and just one storyline -- only further proves Iñárritu's mastery as a storyteller.

And while it may be relatively easy to connect the characters and storylines -- except for the one set in Japan -- one beauty of the film is that it's near impossible to know what's going to happen next or what the final outcome will be regarding the various plot threads.

As the causes and effects go about their merry way of rippling from one character and country to the next, Iñárritu symbolizes yet another form of communication or lack thereof. Whether seen being held by others, used to do terrible things, or simply to gesticulate one's feelings about oneself or others, hands are integral to and focused often on in this film, a project likely to elicit another sort of related communicative reaction -- applause -- from those looking for some terrific filmmaking. Not exactly entertaining or uplifting, "Babel" nevertheless rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed September 15, 2006 / Posted November 10, 2006


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