Four stories in four languages center on the human condition
In keeping with its title, Babel has a jumble of languages and settings, and some of its drama arises out of communication breakdowns. But its main thrust is a matter of several far-flung stories that are both separate and intertwined—and about their cumulative, convoluted consequences, for each other and for us in the audience.
Each of the stories mixes a sensationalistic incident into a tale of unintended consequences.
In the Moroccan desert, a herdsman hands over a newly purchased rifle to his two young sons, one of whom soon takes a pot shot at a distant tourist bus whose passengers include a disaffected married couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett); the woman is seriously wounded, medical attention is hard to come by in such a remote locale, and the shooting has become an international incident before anyone other than a tribal veterinarian has given her medical aid.
In North America, a Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) tending to two Anglo kids in San Diego takes them across the border to attend her son’s wedding, only to have herself and the kids stranded in the desert when her drunkenly erratic nephew (Gael García Bernal) freaks out at the border on the return crossing.
In Japan, a deaf-mute teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) defies her widowed father (Koji Yakusho) and her insensitive contemporaries via an impulsive plunge into sex and drugs.
In synopsis, an element of absurd melodrama is conspicuous in each of the stories, but onscreen that impression is both reframed and undercut by the alternating narrative structure. The fragmented, multi-phased manner of presenting the stories encourages us to step back from the tabloid sensationalism of the individual anecdotes and view the narrative action from a more open-ended and various set of contexts.
The patterns and contrivances in all this have provoked disdain from some reviewers. But for me, the abiding effect has more to do with restoring a certain human urgency, and perspective, to an assortment of eruptions in modern life that are customarily rendered as instant caricature in much of the mass media.
Writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and scenarist Guillermo Arriaga may have gotten more deeply satisfying results from these methods in their previous collaborations (21 Grams and, especially, Amores Perros). But Babel has plenty of payoffs, both as sidelong storytelling and as a canny rechanneling of the soap operas and police stories that are ubiquitous in the U.S., Mexico, Japan and maybe Morocco, too.
The U.S./Mexico episode, for instance, is a multiply ironic immigration story, and the most intriguing instance in the film’s pattern of fractured families and flummoxed traditions. And Barraza’s performance as the nanny gives the film its most distinctively iconic moments.