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November 2006

by Kam Williams


Distributor: Paramount Vantage
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Screenwriter: Guillermo Arriaga
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Gael García Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, Kôji Yakusho
Rated R for graphic teen sexuality, expletives, animal cruelty, gruesome violence, female frontal nudity, mature themes, and underage drug and alcohol use.
In English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Berber, French, and sign language with subtitles.
Running time: 142 minutes

Feelbad Experiences Abound in Modern Morality Play

As related in Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel was an ambitious project embarked upon by defiant disbelievers who wanted to build a stairway to heaven so that they could declare themselves deities instead of worshipping the Lord. But then God intervened, deciding to prevent humanity from finishing the monument to themselves while simultaneously doling out a measure of punishment for their disobedience. With one stroke, before the structure could be completed, He instantly caused them to speak in a multitude of languages. This made it impossible for the blasphemous Babylonians to communicate with each other. And due to the ensuing confusion, the people abandoned their construction site and broke up into incompatible tribes before scattering to the four ends of the Earth.

Babel, a modern fable set in present day America, Morocco, Mexico and Japan, is a multi-layered morality play which merely pays lip service, pardon the pun, to the underlying theme of the old Biblical allegory. Don’t expect any express allusions to Genesis, here, besides finding characters frequently frustrated by language differences.

This multi-layered mystery unfolds as a trio of self-contained plots, with the discrete stories initially interlocking like the strands of a braid.

First, we meet Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) on vacation in
Morocco, trying to inject some oomph into their listless marriage when their sightseeing bus is used for target practice by a couple of kids (Boubker Ait el Caid and Said Tarchani) with a rifle. After Susan is shot in the shoulder, her emotionally-distant husband suddenly cares about her well-being. But because they’re in the middle of the desert and miles away from medial care, getting his profusely-bleeding wife to a hospital proves to be a mammoth challenge. Worse, his Herculean efforts are being complicated by the uncooperative behavior of boorish fellow tourists who fear the attack to be the work of a terrorist.

Richard’s phone call home to California introduces the second strand of the story. Without revealing Susan’s dire straits, he simply asks their nanny (Adriana Barraza) to babysit the kids (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) for a little longer than expected. When he won’t take “no” for an answer, she grudgingly agrees. But since her son is about to get married back in her native Mexico, the illegal alien takes the tykes with her South of the Border where some unanticipated complications ensue.

The third narrative, which takes place in Tokyo, revolves around the antics of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf mute, who’s been depressed since the day her mother committed suicide. The troubled teen has been acting out in a variety of inappropriate ways: by taking drugs, by drinking alcohol, by exposing herself to strangers, and by coming on to almost any guy who crosses her path, including a detective and her dentist.

This tortoise-paced picture takes it sweet time linking Chieko’s sordid, self-destructive adventures with the question of whether Susan will survive and whether she and Richard will ever be reunited with their missing offspring. Unfortunately, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has a most infuriating knack for filling the screen with offensive imagery while making his audience wait for these loose ends to come together.

Kudos to Inarritu for convincing a studio that his collage of unappealing images is entertainment. From the shocking sight of a chicken having its head yanked off in front of unsuspecting children, to that of a little boy masturbating, to Chieko going public with her privates, to annoying disco strobe lights, to Susan’s interminable suffering as the life ebbs out of her, Babel might best characterized as a two and a half hour endurance test.

A test which this critic readily admits to failing.