A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006)

I want to watch a movie about the calamity that befalls a Moroccan family when they acquire a rifle to shoot the jackals that prey on their herd of goats. Or a movie about a nanny for a well-to-do San Diego couple who unwisely decides to take her employers' small children with her when she goes to her son's wedding in Mexico. Or a movie about a deaf Japanese teenager who suffers from sexual confusion in the aftermath of her mother's suicide. But I don't want to watch them all at once, which is what Babel forces us to do. It's a terrifically ambitious film, with some stunning location work in four widespread countries, and it has some great performances, particularly by Oscar nominees Adriana Barraza as the nanny and Rinko Kikuchi as the teenager. It probably deserved the nominations for best picture and for González Iñárritu's direction, too. (It won for Gustavo Santaolalla's score.) But intercutting the three stories mentioned above and centering them on the plight of the San Diego couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) severely reduces their dramatic force and interest. Why, I wonder, were Pitt's and Blanchett's characters on a bus tour of Morocco with a bunch of rather unpleasant Brits? If, as the movie seems to suggest, it's to work on their relationship after their loss of a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, it's a very odd choice indeed. Their movie-star presence also skews the film away from the performances of the less well-known international stars. Structurally, the Japanese story seems poorly integrated: Its only link to the other stories is that the rifle that turns up in Morocco was originally owned by the Japanese girl's father. What struck me as strongest about the movie was its subtext: the bureaucratic paralysis of the American superpower in the wake of 9/11. Pitt and Blanchett are unable to get the help they need in Morocco because of the paranoia about Islamic terrorism that forces an unwanted and unnecessary caution on the U.S. State Department. American immigration policy also prevents a sensible resolution to the problem of the nanny and the children. Babel is certainly not without its rewards, but a scaling-back of its ambitions might have produced a better movie -- or maybe three or four of them.

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