Wednesday, February 07, 2007

BABEL: Disturbing But Still A Seat-Gripper

BABEL (drama)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Elle Fanning, Koji Yakuso and Rinko Kikuchi
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Time: 125 mins
Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 4)
Blanchett and Pitt in 'Babel'
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? The Biblical story of Babel deals with the consequences of unchecked ambition. As punishment for trying to build a tower to the heavens, the human race was scattered all over the face of the Earth in a state of confusion — divided, dislocated and unable to communicate. Now, after so many thousands of years and with such technological advances as mobile phones and the Internet, is the human race any different from the days of Babel?

Mexican film-maker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who gave us “21 Grams”) answers this question in “Babel” which is constructed as a 'time-and-place' puzzle. Like in the Biblical story, there is confusion and displacement in our minds as we try to grasp the seemingly unrelated events that stem from one mischievous act in a desolate corner of the world...

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? In the barren mountains of Morocco, a villager buys a rifle for his two sons to scare off the jackals that attack their goats. The next day, while using the gun for target practice, one of the siblings fires a round at a tourist bus. The boys think nothing of it – until they see the bus stopping a few minutes later.
The shot has found its mark – in the neck of American tourist Susan (Cate Blanchett) who is on vacation in Morocco with her hubby Richard (Brad Pitt). The couple's struggle to find medical aid almost turns into an international crisis with terrorist overtones. Meanwhile, in the US, a Mexican domestic maid's (Adriana Barraza) plan to attend her son's wedding in Tijuana, Mexico, is set in disarray by a phone call from her boss; and in Tokyo, a deaf-mute schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko) and her father (Koji Yakusho) find that the police want to interview them – presumably over the death of her mother.

BOUQUETS & BRICKBATS: Inarritu criss-crosses among these four segments, jumping through overlapping periods of time and place, and we are left to figure out the actual chronology of the narrative ourselves. This may be bewildering in the first hour of the movie but things gradually fall into place as the plots unfold. In our high-tech world, a single gunshot in Morocco may be 'heard' all over the world but getting to the truth is another matter. We may have the means to communicate but not enough to understand and comprehend.
Inarritu and his screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga are also adept at showing the clash of cultures. In a sequence in Tijuana, an act of slaughtering chicken shocks the visiting American kids while the local children do not even bat an eyelid; and in North Africa, the Americans learn that sentiments of urgency and anxiety can be lost in translation.
The most vibrant of the four is the Tokyo segment where we find the deaf-mute Chieko looking for sex and love among the crowds in the streets, nightspots, and even on the dentist's chair. Inarritu allows us to get into her quiet, lonely world and share her frustrations simply by switching off the soundtrack. And the most disturbing is the scene at the US border with Mexico where a Latino maid with her white charges is mistaken for an abductor.
Among the cast, Blanchett and Pitt earn their keep as an average middle class couple trying to resolve their marital woes by going on a vacation. Barraza has us rooting for her as a mother torn between her son and her two young American charges. And the two 'Moroccan siblings', Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid are effective as youngsters grappling with a dangerous 'toy'. However, the performance that stands out most must be Rinko Kikuchi's – who grabs our attention whenever she is on-screen exposing her timidity, sexuality, and eventually, rage.

THE LOWDOWN: “Babel” represents the final instalment of Inarritu's stylistic trilogy that began with “Amores Perros” (2000) and “21 Grams” (2003) – both dealing with how a freak accident connects and affects various people from different places. “Babel” is about misunderstanding and miscommunication – but Inarritu uses a universal language understood by all: the motion picture! Don't Miss This One!


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