Movies: The Power of Babel

3 minute read
Richard Schickel

In Morocco a little peasant boy aims a rifle, newly acquired by his father, at a tourist bus and grievously wounds a woman dozing by one of its windows. In Tokyo an adolescent girl, puzzled and angry over her mother’s suicide (and a deaf-mute as well), bedevils her father and at the same time blatantly asserts her confused but flaming sexual needs. In San Diego a Mexican woman tends two Anglo children she deeply loves while their parents are on holiday, but when her own son needs her, she puts her charges in jeopardy. Unable to find someone to replace her, she takes them along to her son’s wedding with near calamitous results.

Babel is Babel indeed. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga are essentially up to the same trick they used brilliantly in Amores Perros, less so in 21 Grams–interweaving multiple stories about disparate individuals and eventually revealing their hidden connections. Since the characters are, in the present instance, operating on a global scale, some viewers will find Babel excitingly far-ranging. Others may find it merely far-fetched. Some will see the casting of Cate Blanchett as the wounded tourist and Brad Pitt as her husband as evidence that it aspires to be a major motion picture. Others will note the anonymity of the other players and see it as a lengthy, overambitious art-house entry. Those of us who think González Iñárritu is one of the movies’ larger youngish talents will perhaps be inclined to cut him a good deal of slack.

It is not important how, or even if, his three intercut stories become linked. Each of them is, in itself, a powerful tale of fairly ordinary people taken gently down innocent-seeming roads only to find themselves, at the end, in desperate and life-threatening circumstances.

The kid with the gun is playful and innocent; he is not trying to cause an international incident. The sex-crazed Japanese girl is a recognizably troubled adolescent, quite unaware of the largely hormonal firestorm raging within her. The Mexican au pair is a kindly and responsible woman, caught in conflict between the needs of her beloved charges and the call of a central event in her family’s life. Her crisis is the more powerful for the way it takes her, unaware of the gathering threat, to the brink of madness and death. It is a measure of González Iñárritu’s humanity that his protagonists are not all victims of their bad decisions. It is a measure of his potent skills as a director that he hammers home his melodrama with relentless ferocity.

The actors–including his two big stars–are all wonderfully real, seemingly as surprised by the depths and dangers of their circumstances and emotions as we are. Babel is a movie that leaves you feeling limp and wrung out, but mysteriously moved by its vivid human encounters with the hot, tightly wired, chancy and coincidental world, ever capable of terrorizing us when we least expect it.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at