Monday, December 11, 2006
I'm deaf, not blind!
Every frame of Babel announces Alejandro González Iñárritu as a filmmaker with the noblest of intentions. Iñárritu's previous features, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, each told interlocking stories linked by a single incident. In Babel, that incident is a gunshot, and the stories connected here are played out on a global canvas. Iñárritu's film is concerned with such weighty subjects as terrorism, globalization, illegal immigration, and social alienation. So why does it say so little?
The gunshot is fired by Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), a Moroccan boy testing his father's new rifle; through a contrivance that is only plausible if one accepts that Yussef is an idiot, he critically wounds Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American woman grieving the loss of her infant son while on a Middle Eastern holiday with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt). Back in the U.S., their Mexican housekeeper and nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barazza) is left to watch their older son and daughter; her decision to bring the kids to her son's wedding in Mexico turns out badly. And connected more tenuously is the story of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf Japanese teen who resists any emotional connection with her father (Kôji Yakusho) and is plagued by sexual insecurity that compels her towards risky behavior. As with 21 Grams, the film cuts between different narratives, often fracturing continuity; unlike that earlier and better film, Babel's juxtaposition of different stories feels arbitrary, the characters connected by little except their geographic diversity. For all its scope, Babel's ideas feel obvious and superficial - for all the mentions of terrorism, it has nothing to say on the subject, and its take on the geopolitical climate is about as nuanced and insightful as the song "We Are The World." The film's self-consciously bleak tone labors to imply important statements that just aren't there; unfortunately, this is the very definition of pretentious.
Surprisingly, Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who have never failed to create well-crafted, believable characters, stumble badly here. Babel's multiethnic cast is reduced to a series of underwritten cliches - Gael Garcia Bernal is wasted as a hot-tempered Latino - and, worse, most of the characters are totally unsympathetic. We learn little about the Moroccan farmer and his family, his sons depicted only as foolish and creepy (Yussef masturbates to thoughts of his own sister). And the nanny's actions are so irresponsible and implausible that we end up rooting for Border Patrol - odd, considering that the writer and director are Mexican! Only Pitt and Blanchett are given the opportunity to create relatable, fleshed-out characters (though even their characters are crudely robbed of any real narrative resulution). They do fine work together (a scene where they finally address their loss works better than it has any right to), but the unsettling (hopefully unintentional) subtext is that only the pretty white people can overcome adversity and emerge unscathed. While Babel ostensibly pleads for peace, love and understanding, with a little tweaking in the editing room it could just as easily be positioned as a stirring tale of the white man's burden.
But the worst part of Babel is the Japan segment, which strains all credibility in the service of a ridiculous plotline with ugly racial and sexual undertones. I am willing to accept that Chieko would probably have issues with self-image that would lead to promiscuous and destructive behavior. I am not willing to accept that, in the course of one day, a seemingly intelligent and assertive 17-year-old girl would blatanty proposition four different men (including a dentist and a police detective) in one day. Kikuchi deserves a great deal of credit for her fearlessness, but it feels exploitative - Chieko, pantyless under her school uniform, plays into the prurient, vaguely racist Japanese schoolgirl fetish (plus, she's submissive and a virgin). Iñárritu asks Kikuchi to bare all both physically and emotionally, but he demonstrates no real desire to explore the motivation behind Chieko's actions in any detail. The filmmaker feels entitled to teach us, to urge us to understand each other, yet he doesn't even understand his own character; the whole thing feels unbearably hypocritical. The film closes with Iñárritu's dedication to his children, who he describes as his sole source of hope. Unfortunately, that hope is nowhere to be found in Babel; for all its ambition, it is ultimately hollow.