In the Bible, the story of Babel is a cautionary tale of hubris. The whole world had a common language until God, seeing that the people were building a huge tower together, “confused their speech.” They could no longer understand each other, and so they scattered all over the world, each with the people who could speak their language.
And so, Babel is the name of this last in the trilogy from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu about connections and disconnections. This time, he has expanded to global scale, with a story that unites Moroccan herders, American tourists, a deaf Japanese girl, and a Mexican living illegally in San Diego. There is a shooting and there is a wedding. In all three locations, there are cops, there are journeys, there is despair, there are people who cannot make themselves understood, and there is some realization, some increased understanding.
Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are the American tourists, a couple whose brittle conversation about whether it is safe to have ice cubes in their drinks lets us know right away that they have some trouble communicating. Two boys herding sheep show off with their new rifle, fire at the tour bus and Susan is hit. There is not much that feels further from home than being seriously injured in a place where you don’t know anyone and hardly anyone speaks your language. Being Americans, they demand to speak to the embassy. But the possibility that the attack could be terrorism turns it into an international incident. While bureaucrats write memos and politicians make statements, Susan lies on a dirt floor in a village with one phone.
Their children are cared for by a loving nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), whose son is getting married in Mexico. She cannot bear to miss the wedding, so she takes the children with her, foolishly riding back with her nephew, who has had too much to drink. He raises the suspicions of the border guards on the way back and the nanny and children end up lost in the desert.
And in Tokyo, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi in a brilliantly unselfconscious performance) is at home but she also feels isolated and alienated. She is deaf, shunned by the boys she wants to flirt with. And she is a teenager who feels misunderstood by everyone. Her connection to the story is not revealed until the end.
Inarritu expands the themes of his earlier films but relies on the same technique, a mosaic of scenes that gradually assume shapes and patterns. He uses non-professional actors for most of the roles and elicits beautifully natural performances, especially from the adolescents. The film’s sympathy for all of its characters is in itself the answer, or at least the beginning of one, to the questions it raises.
Parents should know that this film has very mature material and themes that could be disturbing to young or sensitive viewers. Characters use very strong and crude language and there are explicit sexual references and situations, including an young girl who flashes some boys and tries to seduce a man. Violence includes beating and shooting, and characters, including a child, are injured and killed. Children are lost and frightened. The themes of dislocation and the gulfs between people and cultures may be unsettling.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that it raises both issues of connection and disconnection.