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Babel

4 stars out of five

A tale of two deserts

Two arid terrains—intriguingly bridged by a Tokyo high-rise whose deaf-mute inhabitant, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi, whose desperate measures are at the root of the theme) takes the legend of Babel to another compelling level—are the ideal backdrop for this magnificent morality fable jammed with action/reaction that occasionally strains credibility but—on balance—delivers enough knockout scenes to hold anyone’s attention through its generous running time.

In Morocco, the near-deadly accuracy of a single long-range bullet (fired by a boy with the same ignorant enthusiasm as those who toss rocks from super highway bridges and maim innocent travellers) sets off a series of events that threaten the lives of the victim’s (Cate Blanchett who suffers with convincing agony and dignity) oh-so-innocent American children (Nathan Gamble, Elle Fanning) as their illegal-immigrant nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza—solid in her constant mothering) slips into Mexico for her son’s wedding. But before you can say “kiss the bride,” the U.S. Border Police are chasing a drunken gringo-hating relative who abandons his Auntie and her charges in the California badlands to fend for themselves while he leads the cops astray.

Long before this action, a self-aimed revolver to the head finds its target. The collapsed mother is first discovered by Chieko, who never heard the blast but erupts into an internal one of her own at the grim discovery. Soon the distraught teen is flashing her bush at fickle boys, an outraged dentist and a “hot” Japanese detective who’s trying to track down her father. Unable to speak and stone deaf, Cheiko’s desperation speaks louder than words to misunderstood or ridiculed youth everywhere. Courageously, she strips bare and hurls herself into the arms of the representative of authority who is sorely tempted but manages to put his own desires ahead of her pain. Sadly this becomes one of the least believable segments of the film—the daily onslaught of the powerful taking advantage of the weak has successfully poisoned the collective sense of decency even more than incessant pollution has spoiled the air that sustains us.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga have fashioned their ideas with conviction and obvious care. The notion that while language, customs and politics are worlds apart, it’s the sense of family that glues humanity together for better or worse, (witness the early-scene argument between the relationship-at-risk couple—Blanchett with a gracefully aging Brad Pitt finally achieving intimacy as his wife nears death in another culture’s hut) that permeates every frame. Rodrigo Prieto’s camera (the pull-back from the tower of despair in a modern metropolis is unforgettable) reinforces the subtext with artful conviction. Gustavo Santaolalla’s score—particularly the isolation-rich guitar as the rest of the frantic, obscenely noisy world becomes mute—is a model of discretion. But it’s the combination of non-linear narrative and the exemplary editing from Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione that draw this Babel towards the heavens even as hell on earth becomes another “triumph” of the culture of globalization. JWR

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