Finally saw Babel today, the third film from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and his screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Shouldn’t I have seen this one already? As somebody who’s been talking up Amores Perros all decade long, and who will rush to defend 21 Grams despite its grotesque heavy-handedness, I’m a little embarrassed that I dragged my feet on this one. But you know, I just had this gut feeling that it wasn’t going to be a lighthearted romp. I was correct. I remember feeling, after watching 21 Grams, like someone had grabbed me by the collar and shaken me for two and a half hours; Babel at times has a similar effect.
Babel’s good, though, which was a relief—it could have gone either way. It’s flawed, but it’s so clearly the work of somebody in full command of their art that you’re willing to forgive it a lot of things. Iñárritu often almost seems to be showing off, in the contemptuous ease with which he shifts between his interrelated storylines; he’s taken the head-snapping transitions between the lives of the rich and poor characters in Amores Perros and spread them around the entire globe. Babel has affluent Americans (played by Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett,) poor Mexicans, really really poor Moroccans, and a seemingly entirely separate story involving a deaf-mute Japanese girl (courageously played by someone named Rinko Kikuchi. Give her an award.) whose heartbreakingly random connection to the other stories only gradually becomes clear.
Iñárritu seems committed to the idea of Filmmaker as God, which may be why these stories seem curiously undramatic at times—he is so eager to show the centrality of chance and contingency that the characters mostly seem completely powerless. But it’s still pretty powerful just watching things happen to them. Pitt and Blanchett play the wealthy-but-miserable American couple who run into absurdly improbable misfortune on vacation in Morocco; meanwhile their two children and their illegal-immigrant Mexican caregiver run into equally improbable trouble back at home. But it’s all done in such a way that you’re never tempted to laugh at the silliness of it (as I occasionally wanted to laugh at Sean Penn in 21 Grams.) You just think, yeah, that could happen. And Iñárritu just excels at showing people in these Biblically dreadful situations; you just can’t look away, even as things get ever awfuller.
Clearly, too, the man has a way with actors, as witnessed by the astonishing operatic performances he got out of the three leads of 21 Grams and by the classy stars eager to be in this film. Brad Pitt’s certainly gotten a lot of praise for Babel, which is a bit much. This is possibly the first time I’ve ever seen him play a grown-up, and he doesn’t embarrass himself, let’s leave it at that—and that’s high praise since he has to share the screen with Ms. Blanchett. On any equal footing, of course, she would act him right off the map, but she essentially does this whole movie with one acting hand tied behind her back; it’s still pretty harrowing. Adriana Barraza, who as far as I know is unknown, is really great as the nanny, as are all the unknown Moroccans. Gael Garcia Bernal, who Innaritu gave to the world as Amores Perros’ doomed hero Octavio, turns in a tidy little cameo as the nanny’s good-for-nothing nephew. (Rachel, with typically sharp eyes, spotted one Peter Wight, the night watchman from Mike Leigh’s Naked, as one of the tourists.)
Also have to mention the cinematography, especially in the Morocco sequences. Sure, maybe it’s easy to film beautiful scenery, but this is still some pretty jaw-dropping stuff. This guy, Rodrigo Prieto, came up with Iñárritu and Amores Perros, and he’s made a nice little Hollywood career for himself—he did Brokeback Mountain, speaking of scenery—but Babel had to be a camera guy’s dream, and he made the most of it. Probably ninety percent of the movie is done handheld, and it’s hardly ever distracting, like it can be sometimes. And I still can’t figure out how they did the final shot, although it may just be CGI.
Anyway, check it out if you like this sort of thing. What with school and everything else, I feel like I hardly saw any of this year’s good movies, so I can’t tell you if this is the best one or anything. I probably still like Brick better, if it comes to that. But this is the real thing—sooner or later these guys will make another truly great movie, but Babel will do in the meantime.