Weaving together interlocking stories is a challenge taken on by many directors, but successfully conquered by very few.
Robert Altman, of course, is the master. Every time I again watch how many disparate characters he tied together in "Nashville" I just have to marvel.
Others have been less fortunate. Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" was, to me, a noble failure at best, and Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana" was just a mess.
Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (and, lest he hunt me down and smite me for omitting him, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga) come much closer to the former rather than the latter by wisely choosing only three stories in "Babel," and creating tension throughout by getting us heavily invested in their outcomes.
The three stories presented are deceptively simple. In one an American couple are on vacation in Morocco when the wife (Cate Blanchett) becomes injured in what quickly develops into an international incident. The second involves a Mexican housekeeper/nanny who, in order to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, takes the two American children she is charged with caring for with her. And the third, and by far most powerful for me, is about a deaf-mute Japanese teenager named Chieko (a simply amazing Rinko Kikuchi).
Inarritu uses sounds as much as sights to keep the tension high as the three stories unfold. From the opening sound of an elderly Moroccan man rapping on the metal door of a neighbor's house, each echo just builds the sense of impending violence and doom.
And two sights in particular stand out more than almost anything I've seen this year. The first is the Mexican wedding, which engages us with its sense of pure joy, with a large dose of help from a small turn from a mischievous Gael Garcia Bernal.
The second and even better sequence comes when Chieko and her friends are lured out for a night on the town by some young cats who are pitching woo. Tokyo is a feast for the senses, and as you watch the action unfold at a discotheque, sometimes from the view of young Chieko, you'll realize that Sofia Coppola just scratched the surface with "Lost in Translation." It's the best large-crowd sequence I've seen since the street party in "City of God," and it's simply a stunner.
What also draws us into these three stories are two truly compelling performances. The first, by Adriana Bazzara as the nanny Amelia, is deceptively laid back until she's pushed to the brink along the U.S.-Mexico border, and she takes you right along with her so well that it can be uncomfortable to watch.
The second was by young Rinko Kikuchi who, without saying a word, makes you feel for this girl who has more issues to deal with than many of us will confront in our entire lifetime. I hate to keep using words like "amazing," but I just can't help it. If there's any justice, you will get to hear her speak on Oscar night, most likely in the category of supporting actress.
And the A-listers, Brad and Cate? They do fine, but are given the least to work with. Brad in particular gets stronger as the movie goes on.
Without giving away at all how all this ends, I'll just say that this movie was superior for me to the two previous Inarritu-Arriaga collaborations, "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," because with all this misery there is a welcome glimmer of hope.
What they've made here, without offering any simple solutions, is an extremely entertaining treatise on our failure, on a global scale, to communicate.
As we were driving home, I couldn't help but think about the fallout between Inarritu and Arriaga, aired in the New York Times, which could lead to their own communication breakdown and the end to their working together on these great movies. Now that would be truly tragic.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Posted by Reel Fanatic at 4:04 PM