Babel

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This international story takes place over a few days, linking locations deep in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, with the desert and towns around the US border with Mexico, and the cafes and bars where teenagers hang out in Tokyo. Moving from the inside out, rather than from start to finish, it is boldly assembled and vivid cinema that tries to tell a story for our times.

It opens on two young Moroccan brothers minding a herd of goats on windswept, treeless slopes where the sight of the occasional vehicle beetling along the road below is the only sign of the outside world.

Their father has just given them an old rifle to shoot the jackals that menace their animals, and because they are unsure about its range they shoot at moving objects to test it. That’s when a bullet pierces the window of a coach in the valley below and enters the neck of an American tourist (Cate Blanchett).

In breathtakingly confident style, the film leaves her behind at this point with her husband (Brad Pitt) shouting for help. It cuts across to a game of volleyball in Tokyo, introducing Cheiko, a rebellious deaf-mute teenager who refuses to accept authority and betrays acute psychological vulnerability. She has been turning for solace to promiscuity, only none of the boys will have her, put off by her disability.

It’s no surprise meanwhile that the shooting has sparked an international incident with claims of terrorism. Enough for one movie you might think, but director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who worked together on the unforgettable Amores Perros and 21 Grams, have added two others, as is their habit.

The American couple were in North Africa on a holiday to get over the recent death of an infant child. Their two older children are back home in the care of their Mexican nanny who takes them with her overnight to Mexico so she can attend her son’s wedding. It’s a fateful decision.

Babel is striking and sensuous, challenging our understanding of the conventions of cause and effect in film grammar, but it could have gone deeper into the individual lives it touches on. Like the biblical tower that is the cause of misunderstanding among the peoples of the world, it is bold and ambitious – but it could have said more.

4 stars