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Review: Babel (2006)

Four interlocked stories spanning four countries and four languages are explored in this tense and complex movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Referring to the biblical tower where people were divided by the birth of new languages, Babel sees tragedy strike a conflicted, American couple, played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, on vacation in Morocco while also presenting the directly related stories of two young, goatherd brothers who make the dangerous mistake of playing with a gun. Meanwhile in other parts of the globe, a rebellious, deaf-mute Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) explores her sexuality and dodges authority while roaming the city of Tokyo with her friends, and a Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) takes her two young, American charges across the border to attend her son’s wedding in rural Mexico. Devastating conflicts arise in each plot, culminating in the revelation of how they are all connected while also digging into the shared fear, pain, and humanity of these initially random stories about language, barriers, and circumstance.

Told in a slightly out of order, non-chronological way, Iñárritu creates a chaotic, twisty film anchored by strong performances and distinctive locales. Although Pitt and Blanchett seem to be marketed as the stars, they have perhaps the least interesting storyline: for the most part, they stay in one place and deal with one problem until they have an emotional breakthrough at the end. However, their characters and story are still critically important for bringing the other storylines together and they do very well with what they are given (I think Pitt’s talents have long been overshadowed by his personal life, which makes him a little underrated in a weird way). In the Japanese plot, Kikuchi is perfectly cast as a teenager struggling with grief and trying to connect to others in a desperate fashion as she also deals with repeated rejections from peers. With her strange angular frame, unflattering haircut and clothes, and uncomfortable sexual energy, she somehow evokes an Egon Schiele painting. In Mexico/America, Barraza plays a maternal figure stuck between a rock and a hard place. Her character tries to be there for her son on his wedding day while simultaneously taking care of the little white girl and boy whom she has nurtured from birth. A last-minute decision leads to a situation with border-crossing guards and her reckless nephew and ending with her and the two kids stranded in the middle of a harsh desert. And in the Moroccan foothills, the two competitive, bickering boys (played by non-actors, I assume) make a thoughtless game out of testing out their father’s new jackal-hunting gun until the consequences come tumbling down around them to destroy their family’s meagre existence.

Most of the film’s dialogue is not in English and the majority of the actors are not nearly as glamourous or well known as Pitt and Blanchett (at the time of Babel’s release at least. Some actors, such as Kikuchi, have become more prominent since then) but that realism strengthens the film’s themes of language barriers and interconnected humanity. Not particularly easy to watch, Babel still manages to deal with many heavy themes and issues in an interesting way that invites discussion.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 headless chickens

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