Photo by Tsutomu Umezawa
Stripped of words, Rinko Kikuchi delivers an captivating performance in “Babel.”
By Steven Snyder
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” unfolds much as his critically-lauded, but off-putting “21 Grams” did as a series of distinct, distanced plot lines that promise to intersect down the road and explain all.
What sets “Babel” apart, however, not only as Inarritu’s (“Amores Perros”) finest film, but also as one of the more fascinating discussions of terrorism in this polarized, post-9/11 world, is how quietly that understated intersection occurs. Compared to the drama that has spread around the globe earlier in the film, it almost seems paradoxical to bring this frenzied international drama to a patient, poignant end on a tranquil Tokyo balcony. But it’s here, far away from the movie’s other stories of illegal immigration, terrorism and global politics, that we realize “Babel” has not been building to a revelation, but revealing itself all along the way. And the ending is, in fact, not an ending at all, but a continuation a brave insistence that the answers to the problems plaguing the lives of these characters are, in fact, right in front of their faces.
The problems start on a lighter note, relatively speaking, in Morocco, as husband (Brad Pitt) and wife (Cate Blanchett) bicker while touring through the desert. Halfway around the world, their nanny (Adriana Barraza) cares for their two children, preparing to head south for the weekend for her son’s wedding in Mexico.
Back in Morocco, a few cities away from the Americans, a father gives his two young sons a rifle to hunt with, while in Tokyo we watch a teenage deaf girl (Rinko Kikuchi) pursue love and acceptance with boys and friends who don’t quite understand her disability.
One gunshot brings these worlds crashing together, and tears these people apart. The American couple suddenly find themselves in a desperate situation, caught in the middle of a desert, desperately asking anyone they see for medical assistance, radioing their embassy for help a call which will later be discussed on newscasts as a “terrorist incident.” When the couple does not arrive home, their nanny decides to sneak the two young American children over to Mexico rather than miss her son’s wedding. Meanwhile, police in Morocco converge on the family of the two young boys, finding the rifle that leads the investigators to Tokyo and the deaf girl’s father.
It’s a complicated film, and at times a convoluted story, which is held together by its impressive array of performances. Pitt and Blanchett, in lesser roles, evoke the fear of foreigners operating without a safety net. But Kikuchi, despite stripping her performance of all words, creates the most captivating and moving character of all.
Still, any movie set up like this with such lofty ambitions that run the gamut of political, geographic and biblical lives or dies by how all these smaller threads tie together into a meaningful and moving idea. In a move that’s both brave and somewhat subversive, Inarritu ends “Babel” on an anti-climactic note, crafting an ending that does not close the story, but broadens it.
The film’s title clearly refers to Genesis 1:13-14, in which God divides humanity racially and linguistically to punish their arrogance in building a tower to heaven. But thanks to the film’s final moments, it is less interested in discussing the ways we’re divided than the ways we’re the same.
The world’s problems, Inarritu seems to say, have nothing to do with our differing languages or beliefs, but with the fact that we’re having the wrong conversations. Rather than looking outward at who to blame or avenge, “Babel” suggests we start looking inward, and determine how to build a foundation of love. Only then will misconstrued words, misleading governments or mistaken agendas no longer lead us astray.