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The Dartmouth
April 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Interweaving plotlines fail to keep 'Babel' together

In an age when globalization and mass media have the power to connect us to even the most remote corners of the globe, the story of the Tower of Babel seems a fitting inspiration for cinematic recreation. A movie about the power of linguistic isolation bears the signs of an Oscar-baiting cultural importance. Or at least it should.

So it's a shame that the miscommunication between the old Babelites is echoed in the disconnect between Mexican director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's vision of "Babel" and the resulting film.

Ostensibly, Inarritu's vision is to conceive an allegory of the divine punishment inflicted on the people of Babel: in the Biblical tale, mankind was scattered around the world and assigned different languages to speak. The film proceeds from this notion, presenting four intersecting narrative threads transpiring in four opposite corners of the globe, with characters who don't and can't understand each other because their methods of communication differ across borders. Which is all fine and well, except that the four isolated stories are linked tenuously at best, and none of them alone can sustain a full-length feature film.

Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are at the center of "Babel" as two Americans vacationing in Morocco. Tragedy strikes the couple, and the movie segues into endless scenes of Richard frantically attempting to contact the American embassy while stuck in a tiny Moroccan village.

At this point, the four separate plot lines begin weaving together: The two young Moroccan boys responsible for Susan's misfortune fear the consequences of their mistake but never meet the people it affected. Richard and Susan's young son (Nathan Gamble) and daughter (Elle Fanning) are left in the care of their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), an illegal alien who must figure out how she can simultaneously tend to the children while attending her son's wedding in Mexico. Meanwhile, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi, in a stunningly subtle performance), a deaf-mute teenager in Tokyo, deals with her budding sexual desires and her strained relationship with her father (Koji Yakusho).

If that last narrative arc seems absurdly tangential, consider it a demonstration of the lack of unity that runs through the entire film. What's more, Chieko's adolescent identity crisis happens to be the most engaging story of the four -- further isolating it from the rest of the movie, and inherently rendering discontinuity and contrived coincidence a central theme of the film.

Nevertheless, the plotlines can be extremely powerful when taken individually. It is impossible to not be stirred by the vision of the Amelia limping through a barren landscape at the U.S.-Mexico border, clad in tattered wedding attire, flailing her arms for help. A stark silence, made more discernible by the hum of a steady wind, hangs heavily over the scene, enhancing the emptiness of Amelia's suffering.

The film's most memorable creation occurs when Chieko visits a late-night rave in an Ecstasy-fueled semi-consciousness. As the camera cuts between a third-person perspective and Chieko's own view of the evening, it produces a gorgeously artful scene -- the silence heard by the deaf teenager alternates with ear-splitting noise from the club. Chieko's profound isolation and dejection are never clearer.

Most of the major performers hold their weight, but, because of the erratic narration, the same can't be said for the supporting characters -- there is only so much time to flesh out every character and story. Gael Garcia Bernal looks as handsome as ever as Amelia's ne'er do well nephew, but, contrary to his star billing, his character only appears for a forgettable few minutes. (Hollywood still seems intent on exploiting his good looks and acting chops to turn him into the next foreign-indie-actor-cum-commerical-movie-star). Moreover, a poor Moroccan salesmen (Mustapha Rachidi) unwittingly involved in the central tragedy has a beautifully withered face and acting style that exposes the layers of his character, but also has minimal screen time.

While the narrative structures of the film fail to hold their own, at least the technical aspects of the film impress throughout. "Babel" may be one confused wreck of a movie, but what a beautiful wreck it is. Nonetheless, while the film might earn accolades come Oscar season for its technical competence as well as its direction and acting, unfortunately, none of these are strong enough to make the film overcome its narrative shortcomings. "Babel" ultimately remains as much of a confused mess as its title would imply.