The problem with the "interrelated multiple storyline" approach to screenwriting lies not in its ubiquity but in the impulse of some audiences to view the device itself as the story, not the ideas expressed therein. Crash addressed race relations, Traffic tackled the drug war, and Syriana painted broad strokes about oil addiction. But, many people lump these films into the same heap as the likes of Sin City, Magnolia and, of course, Pulp Fiction and define all of them solely in terms of their use of serendipity rather than their message.
The filmmaking team of director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga are virtuosos at this storytelling technique. Both Amores Perros and 21 Grams weave hypnagogic, multifaceted tapestries of personal struggle and despair endured by characters linked together by tragic automobile accidents. Some have described the similarly structured Babel as the completion of an unofficial trilogy. They are correct only to the extent that all three films are grim, emotional meditations on the human condition.
Babel opens quietly in the deserts of Morocco with a bedouin selling a Winchester rifle to a goat-herder, who in turn hands the gun over to his teenage sons to kill jackals preying on their flock. While target-practicing at passing vehicles, they hit a tour bus and severely injure the wife of a vacationing American couple (Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt). Hours away from a hospital, the couple is forced to take refuge in a remote, primitive village while they wait for medical assistance to arrive. This sudden emergency delays the couple's return to San Diego, where their longtime nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), is taking care of their children while they are away. Under pressure to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, she carries the children with her in a car driven by her ne'er-do-well nephew, Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal). Additional complications take us to Japan and the plight of a deaf-mute teenage girl who manifests emotional disturbance in the form of frustrated, sexually provocative behavior.
In the course of this globetrotting plot, we discover that the gift of a hunting rifle given to a Moroccan hunting guide ultimately leads to sundry misfortunes culminating with two children left stranded in the desert. However, the "butterfly effect" puzzle pieces are merely handsome gewgaws. The sprawling film is certainly a highly personal series of character studies. But, to learn the real impetus behind the concatenation of events in Babel, one needs to look no further than the Old Testament's font of tribalism and isolation. Whereas humankind has achieved stunning social and technological advances over thousands if not millions of years, we remain a species separated by barriers—language, borders, culture, race, disabilities, etc.
At every turn in the film, hardship occurs due to lapses in communication or understanding, or some consequential, artificial, bureaucratic impediment. The fact that Iñárritu pushes all the main characters to the edge of a precipice (figurative and literal) before pulling them back speaks to two things: studio expectations of a big-budget movie, and a desire to prevent a wave of despair from swamping the audience, thereby detracting from the more relevant message.
Or, perhaps Iñárritu could not bring himself to off any member of the stellar ensemble cast. Pitt and Blanchett are given little to do, but they acquit themselves well to a marriage on the rocks that is suddenly thrown sideways; Pitt, in particular, sports a more wizened visage and flashes an acting acumen we have glimpsed before in Kalifornia, Twelve Monkeys and Fight Club. Barraza is extraordinary, Rinko Kikuchi is heart-wrenching as the Japanese teen, and the Moroccan cast lends an air of verisimilitude.
After the accidental shooting, the U.S. government quickly blames terrorism for the incident. Much ink has been spilled drawing parallels between the myth of the Tower of Babel and the tragedy of 9/11. Islamic zealots saw the pre-9/11 world as unified under an Anglo-capitalist regime intoxicated by its own superiority, much like the boastful, homogeneous Babylonians who sought to cement their self-anointed greatness by building a man-made bridge to God (located, ironically, in what is now Iraq). Jihadists twice set out to topple our Towers, and, indeed, from the ruins of the World Trade Center arose a recommitment to tribalism and xenophobia.
The faith Iñárritu and Arriaga espouse here is more of the Catholic variety—the use or furtherance of violence is eventually turned back on its user; every attempt at illicit sexual gratification is followed shortly by personal calamity. But, the flaw in their sometimes bloated, recondite fable is that it inadvertently incites the very isolation it assails by depicting a plethora of travails that flow from mingling cross-cultures. Babel may preach a sermon on unity, but it appears more apt to erect a security fence than rebuild a tower.
Babel opens Friday thoughout the Triangle.