The preview for Babel is a small work of art, flashing striking images of Morocco, Japan, and Mexico as a narrator tells us the Biblical story of Babel. God resented human efforts to build a tower to the heavens, so God cursed the people, creating language barriers to keep them from ever again uniting in such an ambitious project.
The story serves as a prelude to the movie’s interlocking tales of individuals immersed in cultures foreign to them. An American man, vacationing in north Africa, struggles to get medical attention for his wife, badly wounded by a stray bullet. A deaf Japanese teenager, alienated from the hearing world, flounders in her attempts to connect with people around her. A Latina nanny encounters trouble crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with her young, white charges in tow. A rural Muslim family plunges into the abyss of international politics with terrible consequences.
Objectively speaking, Babel presents merely a butterfly-flaps-its-wings chain of events, the fragile links of which become apparent over the course of the nonchronological film. I’m not sure whether Babel truly amounts to much more than that contrivance, but it certainly feels like more. The cast is universally strong, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the storytelling is beautifully empathetic toward each character.
The humanistic screenplay doesn’t play politics; it gives equal weight to the suffering of a privileged American woman and a destitute Moroccan boy. Writer Guillermo Arriaga sketches each character deftly, giving specificity and humanity to would-be stereotypes. The four tales are deeply affecting; whenever Babel shifts from one storyline for another, I feel a momentary pang of regret at leaving the first set of characters, immediately followed by gratitude that we are returning the second.
The “big names” here are Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, who play the American couple whose trip to Morocco goes so horribly wrong. Pitt persuasively sheds his golden Hollywood veneer to play a man whose grizzled hair and lined face betray the tragedy he recently endured. Blanchett, always amazing, delivers a heartrending performance, from her first painfully brittle scene to the emotional climax of her reconciliation with Pitt.
But the unknown actors are just as compelling. For example, Boubker Ait El Caid, making his first film appearance, is astonishingly good as the young Moroccan goatherd. His portrait of adolescence—selfish, rash, but ultimately well-intentioned, even honorable—is immediately recognizable, even across the chasm of cultural difference. Adriana Barraza is deeply sympathetic as the nanny, whose ties to her family and her charges pull her in different directions. And Rinko Kikuchi plays deaf, angry Chieko without ever flinching from the raw vulnerability Babel requires of her.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu amplifies the actors’ work with ravishing filmmaking. Nearly every other shot in Babel would make an extraordinary still photograph, but beyond that, the filmmaking is immersive, drawing us into the glee of a raucous wedding celebration, the terror of a crowd of people reacting to a sudden gunshot, and the radical isolation of a deaf girl navigating her way through the throng of a nightclub. In the hands of a lesser director, Babel might have been just a pretty travelogue, but Iñárritu’s work is passionate, not superficial.
That said, the links between the stories don’t say much to me. Babel isn’t about violence begetting violence or the effects of globalization or anything like that. I’m not sure I’d necessarily want that—it could be quite pedantic—but the connections that do exist in Babel seem random, meaningless. I confess I’m not sure what Arriaga and Iñárritu want us to take away from the movie beyond a simple appreciation for the humanity of the characters.
And honestly, that simple appreciation is enough for me to recommend the movie. As much as Babel emphasizes cultural divides, the emotions here are universal. In fact, the allusion to the Biblical story is misleading. Languages differences can be overcome in Babel: The deaf girl writes and reads lips; the nanny and her children are bilingual; the stranded Americans have a steadfast translator at their side. One of the most poignant moments in the entire film is wordless: Seeing the agony of the wounded American, an old woman in a hijab silently prepares an opium pipe and holds it to the younger woman’s lips until she drifts away from her pain.
In the end, language barriers aren’t the worst problem. The sharpest, most traumatic failures of communication are between people who speak the same language and yet cannot make themselves understood. It is in exploring that paradox that Babel transcends the mechanics of its plot and ventures into the profound.