Coming Undone

Four stories of woe in Babel.

Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt in Babel 

The Biblical story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) begins by imagining a time when “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” After mankind dares to challenge God by building a tower “with its top in the heavens,” the Lord punishes them by introducing the confusion of multiple languages, thereby scattering humans around the Earth. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (Paramount) is bleaker even than the Genesis story: It starts with the assumption that the human race is already irreparably scattered, and things only get worse from there.

Babel’s Tower of Babel—the human folly that brings down God’s wrath—is globalization. This sprawling 142-minute film traces the trajectory of an American weapon—a Winchester rifle—that’s given by a Japanese tourist to a Berber hunting guide in Morocco and eventually becomes the catalyst for four separate stories of families torn apart.

After the hunting guide sells the gun in question to a goat herder, the herder’s young sons (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) decide to use it for target practice on a passing tourist bus. In doing so, they accidentally hit Susan (Cate Blanchett), an affluent American touring Morocco with her husband, Richard (Brad Pitt), in a bid to save their crumbling marriage. (It’s obliquely suggested that the two have recently lost a baby to SIDS.) Soon, Susan is half-comatose in a village in the middle of nowhere, while Richard makes frantic calls to the U.S. Embassy. The Moroccan police, suspecting a terrorist act, threaten and intimidate the goat herder’s family, provoking what may become an international crisis.

Meanwhile, Susan and Richard’s Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), back home in California with their two children (Nathan Gamble and Elle Fanning), is worried to hear of her employers’ troubles abroad, but even more worried that she may have to miss her son’s wedding in Tijuana. After exploring every avenue, she decides to take them along on a one-day trip across the border, chauffeured by her hotheaded nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal.) It’s a trip that promises to be about as trouble-free as Gilligan’s three-hour tour.

And in a fourth story line that takes a long time to converge with the others, Chieko, a deaf-mute Japanese teenager (the astonishing Rinko Kikuchi), rebels against seemingly everyone in Tokyo, from the volleyball ref to the dentist to her sorrowful widowed father (Koji Yakusho). What’s eating Chieko? It turns out to be something both simple and unbearable—and then, in a final twist, something else again.

Whew. Just summarizing what happens in Babel takes longer than some entire movies. To be sure, some of the plot’s mechanics feel overengineered: Chronologies and convergences are shuffled and reshuffled like songs in an iPod mix. But Babelhas the intelligence not to invoke destiny as the force behind its interconnecting stories: Things in this movie’s world happen because of physics, economics, and individual bad decisions, not because of fate. And unlike many movies with multiple-thread plotlines, Babelhandles all of its story lines equally well. When Iñárritu would cut away from any given locale, I’d experience a moment of disappointment—wait, I want to stay with these guys!—only to get equally caught up in the next story. You watch the last third of Babel with your heart in your throat, terrified that something awful will happen to these characters you’ve come to love—and that includes the shooters as well as the shot-at.

The Japanese plot is probably my favorite of the four, if only because of Kikuchi’s incandescent incarnation of the fierce Chieko. It also features a bravura nightclub sequence in which we alternate between the pulsing music of the strobe-lit dance floor and the silence of Chieko’s inner experience. The Morocco scenes are, by their very nature, the least dynamic: How much oomph can you get out of a leading lady who spends the entire movie prone on the floor of a hut? But the casting of Pitt and Blanchett as the Americans abroad is weirdly right. At first you think they’re the butt of some satiric jab: har har, look at the rich Americans, worrying about the safety of the drinking water when there’s a bullet in their future. But in Iñárritu’s humanistic worldview, Richard and Susan’s suffering is just as real, their family just as precious, as anybody else’s. And seeing their smooth, iconic movie-star faces next to the rougher complexions of the Moroccan villagers (many of them played by nonprofessional actors), you realize that in a Third World country, all Americans are, in essence, movie stars.

Babel has great expectations for itself: It wants to be a movie about big ideas and big emotions at the same time. Aided by gorgeous locations and classy trappings (cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, theme music by Gustavo Santaolalla), it succeeds for the most part, and in the process makes Crash, another recent film with converging stories and a multicultural cast, look like an undergraduate term paper on race relations.