The year 2006 marked the (as yet) final collaboration between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, a partnership that yielded three pessimistic punches of puzzle construction and tragedy pile-ups with Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel. What initially seemed fresh with Amores perros in 2000 devolved into miserablist self-parody by the time Iñárritu released the final chapter of the “Death Trilogy,” which is yet another tale of inter-connectivity told in disconnected fragments; where contrivance upon contrivance is desperately and falsely sold as profundity.
One of the taglines used in Babel’s 2006 marketing was “If you want to be understood… listen.” And so, the film initially starts off as a kaleidoscopic look at the tone-deafness found when cultures collide in situations of dislocation, with a tapestry of tales scattered across the globe. In Morocco, a goat herder (Mustapha Rachidi) sends his two sons (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) to guard the flock from jackals, armed with a high-powered rifle he’s recently purchased. In an attempt to test the prowess of the rifle promised by its seller, the boys end up shooting a tour bus, severely wounding an American woman (Cate Blanchett) onboard, whose husband (Brad Pitt) must then navigate bureaucratic hell to get his wife the medical attention she needs.
Back in the couple’s home of San Diego, their nanny (Adriana Barraza) is stranded with her two charges (Nathan Gamble and Elle Fanning), and the Morocco situation means she seemingly can’t attend her son’s wedding in Tijuana. Finally, there’s a deaf-mute Tokyo teen (Rinko Kikuchi), who exhibits bursts of exhibitionism in attempts to both connect with others and also mask her rage, and whose widowed father (Kôji Yakusho) is wanted for questioning by the police.
Again, Babel initially starts as a theoretically interesting study of tone-deafness, only for the film itself to swiftly become tone-deaf. The “everything is connected” prestige drama was at peak popularity around this time in the mid-2000s, with Paul Haggis’ Crash having won the Best Picture Oscar earlier in Babel’s year of release. While Iñárritu’s film successfully avoids plummeting to the depths of Crash (thanks to a couple of at least technically arresting sequences), it most resembles the film in terms of narrative and thematic exploration and execution. Babel is Crash with delusions of global grandeur; a film that masquerades as a sweeping, humanistic epic, but is instead an ultimately hammy, superficial and miserablist game of connect-the-dots.
Just about the only two sequences of real artistic merit in Babel come through scenes free of conversations of miscommunication. There’s disconnect in these scenes, but it is explored through genuinely immersive textures via ambient cinematography and sound design. These are, respectively, a Tijuana wedding celebration, filtered through the confusion of two kids who don’t speak the local language, and the deaf-mute teen’s foray into an atmospheric, loud dance club, the music blasting in and out of the film as Iñárritu cuts back and forth between what Kikuchi’s Chieko hears and what the other club patrons do. These scenes work because there is an element of genuine disorder to them, as opposed to the calculated form of messiness contained in the rest of the film. Considering that tagline, it seems somewhat ironic that the film’s best scenes don’t involve people actively trying to listen, instead going with the flow of the moment; lucidity achieved when the film breaks free of its rigidity.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.