Gael García Bernal
Boubker Ait El Caid
Alejandro González Iñárritu
It's difficult to avoid Mexican film-makers these days. Since Alejandro González Iñárritu kick-started the new 'Mexican wave' with his masterly Amores Perros in 2000, he and other directors such as Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro have made a huge impact with films like Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth.
Babel is Iñárritu's most ambitious movie yet, winning him Best Director at Cannes 2006 and Best Film at the Golden Globes 2007, plus seven Bafta nominations.
As the biblical reference in the title suggests, this is a film about cultural misunderstandings and failures in communication. With breathtaking scope, the action weaves between four overlapping stories set in Morocco, California/Mexico and Japan, where the characters are divided by geography, race and language, yet all are interconnected.
In Inarittu's two previous movies, Amores Perros and 21 Grams (the former especially a big influence on the Oscar-winning Crash, of course), the characters, who come from different classes and backgrounds, would probably never otherwise encounter each other except for the car crash/accident which literally makes their separate worlds collide. In Babel too a violent and random act has unimagined repercussions, but on a much wider scale.
In a complicated structure in which we move back and forward in time as well as between four narratives in different countries, the film centres around the relationships between several sets of parents and children. Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are a San Diego couple on a healing trip to Morocco after their baby's death. Their two older kids are being looked after at home by their Mexican maid Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who makes the fateful mistake of allowing her fiery nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) to drive her and the kids into Mexico for her only son's wedding.
The pivotal event occurs when Susan, on a tour bus with Richard, is shot in the shoulder. The bullet comes from a hunting rifle that a goat herder (Mustapha Rachidi) gave to his two sons (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid), one of whom fires wildly at the bus from a hillside. But with Susan bleeding and near death in a remote village and Richard phoning his rage to the US embassy, the shooting is media-hyped into a post-9/11 terrorist incident. Meantime the Moroccan police are brutally hunting down the perpetrators under orders to stop the country's tourist-friendly image from being tarnished.
The impact stretches to Tokyo, where a father (Koji Yakusho), coping with the suicide of his wife and the promiscuity of his deaf-mute daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), finds himself connected to the shooting - but we don't realize how the Japanese storyline links up with the rest of the film until late on.
Working with his usual screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (though it seems that the two have now fallen out over screenwriting credits), Iñárritu has pulled off the tricky problem of making each storyline equally interesting, not loosening the grip on our attention over 142 minutes. Once again they have created a compelling drama with real emotional punch, so that you come out of the cinema reeling from the experience. Sometimes you may feel that you are being manipulated, and the film does occasionally err on the side of sensationalism, but even if it is flawed Babel is still a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling made with visceral intensity.
Brad Pitt gives perhaps his finest performance to date in the unglamorous role of Richard, made up to look older, with grey hair and face lined with anxiety. Cate Blanchett is totally convincing as Susan, a woman whose grief over the recent death of her baby turns to terror after being shot, and then a moving reconciliation with her husband as both physical and emotional wounds are healed.
The ubiquitous Gael García Bernal gives Santiago a seething resentment against the border guards, stoked by tequila drunk at the wedding, which reflects the underlying friction in US/Mexican relations. But perhaps the two most impressive performances come from Adriana Barraza, the well-meaning, big-hearted Amelia who gets out of her depth, and Rinko Kikuchi, as the touchingly vulnerable Chieko who yearns for the warmth of real human contact.
Although as usual Iñárritu seems to relish making his characters suffer as they try to cope with unexpected disasters, the final result is strangely uplifting and optimistic. Despite the conflicts and divisions between the characters and their cultures, ultimately they are united by a common humanity. The first must-see movie of 2007.