3½ stars (out of four)
"Babel," the latest movie from the director-writer team of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga, is a film about the chaos of misunderstanding that often afflicts the world and how it can plunge us into confusion and tragedy. It's also an argument for truth and sympathy in a dangerous world.
It's a powerhouse, demanding film that sometimes stretches the limits of credibility. But it's done with such consistent technical brilliance--and with such a first-rate cast and company (including Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Koji Yakusho and Gael Garcia Bernal)--that it sweeps you along in a tide of cinematic energy and high-voltage drama.
Like Inarritu's previous movies, "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," it's a multiepisode film tying together people from varying cultures and classes. Here, we follow four sets of characters in four countries--Morocco, Japan, the United States (briefly) and the filmmakers' native Mexico--in conditions ranging from poverty to affluence. And we see how they all respond to the intricate chain of events triggered when a well-off Japanese widower, Yasujiro (Yakusho) gives a high-powered rifle to his Moroccan hunting guide--who then sells the rifle to another family, where it gets into the hands of two boy goatherds. The repercussions of that act spread to all the other characters.
Pitt and Blanchett powerfully play Richard and Susan, a California couple who've gone on a Moroccan vacation to help repair their damaged marriage but find themselves in a nightmare when the mountain boys, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani), foolishly test out the rifle by taking a potshot at the tourist bus.
A conflagration erupts, with the wounded Susan in jeopardy in an area isolated from modern medical care and the boys and their family mistaken for terrorists. And, back in California, the chaos spreads further when the couple's illegal immigrant nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) has to quickly change her plans to attend her son's wedding in Mexico when told her employers are trapped in Morocco. Driven back across the border (illegally) by her charming, reckless nephew Santiago (Bernal), Amelia hastily brings along her charges, Richard and Susan's young children Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning, Dakota's sister), creating more peril.
Finally, in Tokyo, Yasujiro, whose unwise gift ignited all this turbulence, has his peace threatened by police questioning about his old rifle as well as the escapades of his sexually curious, deaf-mute teenage daughter Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi).
The sequences all catch fire; the scenes where Richard tries to save his wounded, bleeding wife, stranded in a small village, are agonizing. So are the awful visions of the Moroccan family under siege by the police and of Amelia and her young charges lost in the desert, the nanny staggering across hot sands in her torn wedding clothes.
There is a problem of plausibility with all these interlocking crises. But it's important to remember that the story is not proceeding chronologically, but--as with "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams"--in fragments, like pieces of a great puzzle whose meaning becomes clear at the end.Pitt, Blanchett, Bernal, Barraza and Yakusho (the repressed dance student in "Shall We Dance?") all give high-intensity, deeply committed performances. But no less extraordinary are the Moroccan actors, including the performer who moved me most: Mohamed Akhzam as Anwar, the villager whose kindness and decency briefly break the barriers.
Inarritu, who won the best-director prize at Cannes for "Babel," is a filmmaker of great talent but also of great heart. Arriaga is a writer of torrential invention and keen dramatic empathy. And their film ultimately is a beautiful, thrilling maze that pulls us into and out of traps and seeming blind alleys.
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; written by Guillermo Arriaga, from an idea by Arriaga and Inarritu; photographed by Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Stephen Mirrione, Douglas Crise; production designed by Brigitte Broch; music by Gustavo Santaolalla; produced by Inarritu, Jon Kilik, Steve Golin. In Spanish, Japanese, Arabic and English, with English subtitles. A Paramount Vantage release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:23. MPAA Rating: R (for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use).
Richard - Brad Pitt
Susan - Cate Blanchett
Anwar - Mohamed Akhzam
Amelia - Adriana Barraza
Santiago - Gael Garcia Bernal
Chieko - Rinko Kikuchi
Yasujiro - Koji Yakusho