Babel, the third and probably final collaboration between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, is a well-acted, beautifully shot film that somehow manages to hold you at arm’s length for more than two hours. It is frustrating because you do want to know these characters better but the movie never lets you get close enough.
Following four disparate, seemingly unrelated groups of people on three continents, Babel weaves a complicated tale about linguistic and cultural differences having potentially tragic consequences. A Moroccan goat herder buys a rifle to protect his flock from predators. His teenage sons alleviate the boredom of tending the flock by testing the rifle’s accuracy and one of their bullets strikes an American woman, Susan (Cate Blanchett), on a tour bus. Her husband, Richard (Brad Pitt), forces the bus driver to divert to a nearest town so she can get medical care. This crisis delays their return from vacation and their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), is unable to find someone to care for the couple’s two children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) while she attends her cousin’s wedding in Mexico. Impetuously, she decides to take the children with her and she and her nephew (Gael García Bernal) head south. Meanwhile, a deaf Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo who seeks out random sexual encounters to lash out at her emotionally distant father, recently widowed by his wife’s suicide.
Back in Morocco, Richard’s attempts to get his wife evacuated to a hospital are frustrated by friction between the U.S. and the Moroccan government over American insistence that this was a terrorist attack. Desperate to provide proof that it wasn’t terrorism, the Moroccans launch a major manhunt for the shooter, sending the goat herder’s sons into a panic and provoking a tragic confrontation. In Mexico, Amelia and her nephew decide to head directly back to the U.S. after the wedding rather than spending the night, a decision that also has potentially disastrous consequences.
The film’s dual themes of miscommunication and the interconnectedness of events are well-communicated, but often at the expense of the characters. Ironically, the story that seems the least connected to the rest, about the sexually frustrated Japanese girl, is the only one that really engages the audience in any significant way, to the point that cutting away to the other characters began to seem like an annoying interruption. And despite the nature of this story, and copious nudity on the part of actress Rinko Kikuchi, this overwhelming feeling from this segment is not eroticism but touching loneliness and sadness.
Despite their star billing, neither Brad Pitt nor Cate Blanchett has much to do here. The British actress spends most of her screen time unconscious. Pitt has a few emotionally raw scenes that let him show his range, but for the most part, his role is necessarily passive, sitting back and waiting for someone to help his wife.
The film’s central mystery, namely what the Japanese characters have to do with the rest of the movie, is revealed in an off-handed way about two-thirds of the way in. I won’t spoil it but don’t expect a “Rosebud” level of revelation. The natural reaction is more like “Oh…okay then.”
Again, there is nothing remotely bad about this film. The acting and other craft is first rate, but the filmmakers manage to prevent the audience from making an emotional connection with most of the characters on screen. Keeping us at that kind of distance is a lot to ask over this film’s 143 minute running time.