"Babel" is a work of remarkable craft, a masterpiece of sensorial and emotional intensity. The film, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a bleak, disquieting film for our troubled times, and a palpable sense of tension permeates throughout.
Director Alejandro González Inarritu is at the height of his powers here; in presenting multiple plotlines set around the globe, he never shortchanges the drama of any individual sequence, nor is there any confusion about where we are at a given point. And while "Babel" puts the audience through the wringer, the end result is strangely hopeful and comforting; it’s a movie about the interconnectedness of humanity, in which people struggle mightily to find a way out of emotional and cultural seclusion.
Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchette) are a married couple touring Morocco by bus, when tragedy strikes, courtesy of a silly dare by two children firing rifles in the desert. Susan is mortally wounded, so Richard calls the couple’s nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) and tells her to continue taking care of their children for a few more days. But it’s the day of her son’s wedding, so she brings the children with her and her decent but unruly nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) across the boarder into Mexico. Meanwhile in Japan, Chieko, a deaf teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) is bursting at the seams with teen angst as she tries to connect with her peers; she also warms to a police officer who’s looking for information about a gun her father once owned.
It feels wrong to say much more, since each of these scenarios builds to moments of incredible anxiety. There’s an organic feel to the way the three stories are linked; the events don’t feel contrived to fit an overarching message. This is sort of a "The World Is Flat" of the soul. The performances are uniformly excellent; Pitt, Blanchette and Bernal may be the biggest names here, but the international cast (especially Kikuchi), which includes many non-professionals, is more than up to the task.
There’s a passage in the middle of the film that’s as virtuoso as anything you’re likely to see all year. Chieko enters a pulsing dance club with some friends and a couple of guys they met earlier in the day. As Earth Wind and Fire’s "September" plays on the soundtrack, we get both the scene surrounding Chieko and her perspective. The combination of the flickering strobe light, the flurry of bodies in motion, and the intermittent blast of the music mixed with silence create a hypnotic sequence of disquieting power. It’s the greatest sequence in a film filled with remarkable moments, and it typifies the cinematic daring that makes Inarritu’s film such a joy to behold.
"Babel" currently stands at 100 percent on the Tomatmeter. The critics say it’s a remarkably ambitious and compassionate film featuring strong performances.