Babel, as the name implies, is about communication, or, more to the point, the lack thereof. Ironically, the nations of the earth are able to stay in touch with each other as perhaps never before, as the filmmakers constantly remind us: televisions, telephones, and radios turn up every few minutes, as characters employ them or as background or explicator of the action. But screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu reiterate, in numerous ways, that having the means of communication, even a common language, doesn't guarantee that humans will understand each other, in fundamental and important ways.
There are three plots, widely separated geographically but, as the film develops, interconnected, firmly or tenuously. The first two introduced, set in Morocco and southern California/Mexico, involve the members of one family. Mother and father, (Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt), are traveling with a tourist group through the Moroccan desert when the woman is shot. The shooter, a young Arab goatherd, has been playing with a rifle given him by his father to ward off jackals, but the incident quickly takes on international proportions, given the tension around terrorism anymore. While his wife lies critically wounded in a tiny village, her husband contacts officials, but help keeps not arriving, Inarritu racheting the suspense skillfully.
Meanwhile, the couple's two young children are being cared for by their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a middle-aged Mexican woman, whose son is about to be married in her native town. She takes the kids with her to the celebration, fulfilling both her "parental"¯ responsibilities, though putting herself in legal jeopardy. As events unwind, her having made the "right"¯ decision turns nearly tragic"”a recurrent event in the film, which constantly shows individuals at the mercy of life's randomness.
Then the story shifts, inexplicably, to Tokyo. (The multiple sudden jumps of location and atmosphere confuse and jar at first, but gradually, subtly develop the themes.) The focus now is on Chieko, a deaf mute Japanese girl (movingly played by Rinko Kikuchi ), angry and defiant towards her singe-parent father. Taking risks in the larger world she cannot hear and only imperfectly communicates with, Chieko illustrates the universality of the separations, the silences that lie between people. At points, Inarritu shifts to her point of view, forcing us to see"”but not hear"”the world which she feels regards her as a monster. Yet many of this film's most memorable moments occur in silence, underlining the limits of verbal communication.
There are no stars in the huge cast, Pitt and Blanchett not excepted. For my money, the most riveting performances are those of Kikuchi and Barraza, both of whom are totally credible: they draw us into their characters' lives so fully that we forget we are watching actors. Credit Inarritu, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and film editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione for creating that same immediacy, using all the tools of the filmmaker to bring us into the characters' very different worlds.
Inarritu dedicates Babel to his children, "the brightest lights in the darkest night."¯ This is not a film for children"”the "R"¯ rating is completely justified"”but it is surely one for parents, if only to appreciate the dangerous world their children are inheriting. It makes unusual demands on the audience at a number of levels, but the payoff is worth the effort.