Feelbad Experiences Abound in Modern Morality
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.