The emotional exhaustion of watching this film is a measure of its expert director, writer, and cast.
When the descendants of Noah presumed to build a ladder to heaven, God, angered at their arrogance, scattered them around the planet there to live forever in multilingual confusion. “Babel” touches down in Morocco, America, Mexico, and Japan, landing for a short period in the lives of families struggling with chaos that has overwhelmed them. If some of the connections are thin, the big one, the Bible’s chaos of language and culture, is the movie’s driving force. The emotional exhaustion of watching this story is a measure of its expert director, writer, and cast.
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga, “Babel” begins in the relentless desolation of the Moroccan mountains. A father has given his small sons a rifle with instructions to protect the family’s goat herd from harm. The boy decides to test the range of the gun on a passing tourist bus where his bullet pierces the neck of Susan (Cate Blanchett) who sits next to her husband Richard (Brad Pitt).
As the film jumps to Tokyo, we watch as teenaged Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf teenager filled with anger after her mother’s death, inflicts her sullen rage on both her father and her basketball team. As the movie switches powerfully from sound to silence to show us Chicko’s world, we understand both her fury and her destiny as an outsider even in the world of high privilege that she inhabits.
In America, Amelia, a Mexican taking care of Susan and Richard’s children, receives Richard’s call from Morocco. They won’t be coming home soon; there has been a shooting; Amelia must not cross the border to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico; but she does. And she takes the children with her. As each mile passes, Amelia (played beautifully by Adriana Barraza) sinks deeper into guilt for what she has done, she fears their return journey with good reason.
Susan and Richard, stranded far from medical help and lost without the American infrastructure, may lose even the support of the impatient tourists who are their fellow passengers. They in Morocco, Amelia in Mexico and California, Chieko in Tokyo – all are isolated and helpless. Overtaken by sudden trouble, they must deal with misfortune alone. There is no support for any of them in alien cultures and languages. Only the thin history of the rifle connects them in actuality. On an emotional level, they share terror.
The forsaken landscape of the desert, the dusty Mexican wedding tent, the perfection of the Tokyo apartment – these are the wildly different landscapes for the misery that unfolds not in a generalized way but at very specific moments in the lives of the characters. During the time we know them, they are thrown from security into fear. Whether it is rape in Tokyo, a shooting in Morocco or being lost in the southeastern desert, the scattered cultures and languages bring deep ravaging, fear to everyone in this powerful film – the biblical Babel indeed.
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