Director    Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring    Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Rinko Kikuchi, Gael Garcia Bernal, Adriana Barraza
Release    November 10th 2006 (US) January 19th (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


22nd February 2007

So here we are. Oscar season is with us again. Time for actors everywhere to dust down their 'ugly' make-up, brush up on their period accents and unleash films about gay midgets in 1940's Warsaw on unsuspecting audiences. The latest effort from 21 Grams and Amores Perros helmer Alejandro González Iñárritu has some of the tell-tale trappings of Oscar-bait as well. Slightly pretentious Biblical title? Check. Brad Pitt with greying hair nursing a dying Cate Blanchett? Check. Multi-layered, globe spanning, intertwining stories? Check. Still, at least there are some Japanese schoolgirls in the locker-room in case the audience gets too bored.

The title is taken from the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, where men decided to build a huge tower to reach the heavens. As punishment for their arrogance, God removed from mankind the gift of a universal language; this gives a rather obvious clue as to the stand-out theme of this film. Misunderstandings, breakdowns in communication, and language barriers form the crux of the drama in each segment.

High in the hills of rural Morocco, two young boys are playing with their father's rifle. Frustrated at their lack of prowess with the firearm, they decide to try shooting at some bigger targets. Eventually, a tour bus passes on the road below, and the boys take a pot shot from their position on the hill. Their bullet hits Susan (Blanchett), an American tourist onboard, and from here we see the repercussions being felt around the world. Susan's husband Richard (Pitt) has to try and get medical attention quickly, despite not speaking a word of Arabic. The pair are taken to a nearby village, and have to rely on the kindness of the locals until an ambulance arrives. Meanwhile, the two young boys hide the rifle in the mountains, and watch the local authorities try to piece together what happened.

On the other side of the world, Richard and Susan's nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) takes the couple's children across the border to Mexico, in order to attend her son's wedding. As they try to return, they have an altercation with the border guards, and speed off across the desert in a bid to lose them. Further away still, Chieko (Oscar-nominated Kikuchi), a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl, struggles to come to terms with her mother's suicide, much to the concern of her successful businessman father. It is this section of the film that sees the director at his most flamboyant, particularly in a stand-out disco scene that phases between loud dance music and silence, giving the audience an insight into Chieko's rather isolated existence.

The Moroccan section of the film sees Brad Pitt's increasingly distressed husband struggle to communicate with the locals in the village, which hinders his wife's chances of getting adequate medical assistance. At the same time, the US government assumes that the bus was attacked by terrorists, and as such refuses to send a helicopter to quickly transport the couple to a hospital. In Mexico, the American children are introduced to a traditional Mexican party (featuring a stand-out Gael Garcia Bernal), even though they are terrified by the good-natured firing of guns into the air. At the border, a drunk Bernal is uncooperative with the border guards, and the confusion results in a chase across the desert, with the guards falsely assuming the group to be illegal migrants. In Japan, Chieko struggles to interact normally with those around her, due to a combination of her disability and her mental anguish over her mother's suicide. Her faltering relationships with teenage boys and tentative explorations of drug use mark her out as a young girl lost, and even her relationship with her father is under strain.

Told in a mixture of English, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese and sign language, there is no denying Babel's scope and ambition. Every lead turns in a strong performance, from Blanchett's quiet dignity and Pitt's despairing husband, to Bernal's mischievous nephew. There does, however, seem to be something missing from the film, something in between an interesting hour or two and real greatness.

Fractured storylines such as Babel's really need to form a cohesive whole to keep audiences interested, and unfortunately the various threads have a habit of veering off into different tangents, which bear little relevance to the overall story. For every powerful and poignant moment - Pitt breaking down on the phone to his kid is a powerful moment, even if it is a rip from Munich - there is a frankly unnecessary spectacle, such as watching Blanchett urinate in a Moroccan vet's frying pan. There is no escaping the thought that a more ruthless editor could easily have shaved 25 minutes of this film, and made a tight, focused five-star exploration about the nature of language and understanding.

There is no denying the scale and ambition of Inarritu's film, but perhaps the Tower of Babel's real lesson to the audience is not about the disintegration of communication, but rather the folly of misguided over-ambition.

More:  Drama  Oscars
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