Film review by: Witney Seibold
“I think that if someone has so much trouble communicating with others, the least they can do is shut up.”
A woman (Cate Blanchett) is accidentally shot by a stray bullet while touring in Morocco. Her husband (Brad Pitt) is unable to find suitable help, forcing them to stay sick and injured in a small town while their impatient tour bus drives away. At home, the couples’ children are being looked after by their Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza). The nanny must return to Mexico to attend her son’s wedding, and decides, somewhat unwisely, to take the children with her. An incident at the border leaves the nanny stranded in the Mexican wilderness with an injured child. In Japan, a mild-mannered widower (Koji Yakusho) is having an excruciating time raising his deaf-mute teenage daughter (Rinko Kikuchi). There is some suspicion as to whether or not his recently-deceased wife was killed or committed suicide. He went traveling in Morocco recently, and sold a gun there to a Moroccan family, used to scare the coyotes away from the goats…
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel,” like “21 Grams,” “Traffic,” “Syriana,” and “Crash” (2005) before it, is part of what has been come to be known as the “hyperlink” film. A hyperlink film is a vast ensemble drama that weaves together many seemingly unconnected story arcs and many seemingly unconnected characters into a single tapestry lending itself to a single theme. It takes a screenwriter of a particular stripe (in this case Guillermo Arriaga) to make this kind of thing work. Many, many people love the hyperlink structure, as proven by the multiple Academy Award nominations granted to each of the films above. “Babel” was up for Best Picture. Roger Ebert recently added it to his list of Great Movies.
The central theme of “Babel,” as its title implies, would be that of misunderstanding and the barriers of language. This is a very savvy, if not rudimentary, interpretation. The Mexican nanny has trouble talking to the border patrol, and cannot really explain why she has two white kids with her. The white American couple cannot find anyone who speaks English or even understands what specifically they seek other than help. The deaf-mute Japanese girl cannot seem to get through to her own father, and must rely on her own unsure sexuality to relate to her peers.
Others also have pointed out that “Babel” is less about verbal misunderstanding, and more about a more basic disconnect between people; how intentions, however pure or clear in one’s own head, can never be expressed to the world at large. And how this disconnect leads to confusion, tragedy and pain.
These are all valid and correct interpretations.
Having said all of this, I did not like “Babel.”
“Babel,” to be sure, is full of fantastic moments. The helplessness of the Mexican nanny is palpable and wrenching. The confused silence of Kikuchi’s character is wondrous (and easily the best thing in the film). The quiet moments of dignity between the American couple are sweet and well-acted.
But the film as a whole is misshapen, ponderous, boring, and even immature. The messages of miscommunication are blazingly obvious, and, as a result, many of the moments intended to be moving come across as preachy and hamfisted. There is a final teary surrender scene in which adults themselves are moved to tears by the tears of a young boy. In a film intended to have such strong themes, perhaps the filmmakers should have avoided a moment that could have come from a cheap 1970s TV movie. There is something undeniably high-school about “Babel.” It doesn’t approach the after-school-special level of preachiness of the vastly, vastly overrated “Crash,” but “Babel” is certainly an adolescent version of How People Just Can’t Communicate Anymore.
The film is shot is a grainy, shaky, ultra-realistic style, and we are prompted to compare this film to real life. However, the stories tie together so conveniently (i.e. they don’t just come together, they actually totally enmesh), that it makes everything less believable. And each “hyperlink” connection we see makes the film increasingly less believable, until we’re standing at the end of the film, having witnessed a beautifully shot, beautifully acted piece of preposterous amateur theatrics.
Had “Babel” been a series of short films, it would have been a masterpiece. If, rather than a single 2-hour-and-23-minute film, we had four 45-minute films that we could see separately and out-of-order, like, say “The Decalogue,” then each story would have had to stand on its own, and each of the connection would not have felt so forcibly wedged in. The best way to see “Babel” is to rent the video and then assemble each storyline together yourself.