Babel(2006) is the kind of film that has all the right moves yet struggles to put them together in a unified and competent way. Painfully slow and laborious cinematography lends to the overall sense of importance placed on the minutiae of ordinariness where dull characters are moved around like mute chess pieces with little relevance beyond the filmmakers’ insistent message that all we need is to communicate better in order to live better lives. The talented team of Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu fail to achieve the same success as their previous films, 21 Grams and Amores Perros becaise Babel feels like a portentous chalkboard lesson disguised in a flimsy, convoluted plot masquerading in story. While this is their third film together, and certainly not their last it is apparent something has gone terribly awry; Babel might indeed teach us about the importance of cohesive story telling and compelling, complex characters yet this seems like an after thought competing with the value of a fractured plot that goes on too many one-way roads to be rewarding in the end.
Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt are the star vehicles of this film, though others compete for best performance. As a vacationing couple who fall victim to a roadside happenstance, their chemistry isn’t right though it is their situation that reverberates, the first narrative thread of four to span the globe and begin the tutorial. Delivered separately, the narratives would mire down in their own everydayness and succumb to derivative scenarios where convenience replaces plot, archetypes assume character and story is more a matter of perspective than journey. In previous Inarritu/Arriga films, much jumbled narratives were better fueled, populated by engaging characters with more than life to lose – here, the viewer is strung along with a message intended more for the world stage than any one audience or singular experience. The trouble with films that rely on didactic storytelling is that they often get lost and forget about the basic building blocks of believable human experiences. Babel drones on like a radio station caught between channels, one in English the other Spanish or a mixture of the two – too much of one and not enough of the other to make either one meaningful or intelligible.
Non-linear ensemble films are not uncommon, though some succeed for the very reason others fall short. Los Angeles based screenwriter and writer at John August has a fairly succinct and solid primer for the genre on his website. Rodrigo Garcia has used this technique in his films Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (1999) and again with Nine Lives (2005). While his first film is vastly superior, the mechanics of jumbling stories begins to wane by his second film and I suspect his third installment will suffer similarly. Tarantino and Kubrick are perhaps more widely known meddlers of plot and measure. M. Night Shyamalan famous employs this technique in his films and it has become his trademark – in his case, he uses a surprise ending. While his earlier films were superb and masterfully crafted, they do become tiresome, predictable and ultimately feels heavy-handed. Babel doesn’t suffer from not knowing what is going to happen as much as it does staggering from one plot point to the next until finally, ultimately their connection makes sense. Sadly, by the time we’re let in on the reason these four stories have some semblance of relationship it’s difficult to care or feel emboldened by the experience.
It is unfortunate that both Pitt and Blanchett are robbed of much screen time, their characters reduced to little more than plot devices that barely fuel Pitt’s semi-frantic befuddlement. The message is clear enough, the language and cultural barriers taken for granted, the dire consequences of a world that does not share enough of a connection to keep people from dying spelled out. However the message gets in the way and before we can truly feel the circumstances of the event we’re teleported to another story thread that seems to have nothing to do with where we left off. It’s not enough to say we’ll find out. It’s not enough to use the bastardized broadcast of sound bytes and nightly news seconds as the undercurrent of a story about troubled, hapless victims because cinema rarely operates successfully this way. Instead, the characters should tell us their story and whether or not we get it should be left up to our own devices – even knowing a great many will not find the point.
Babel gives under the weight of its own conceit and in this way it is burdened, almost irrelevant. Whereas the story is at times interesting and the expedition of perspectives lends to potential consequences within the fragmented narrative fabric, overall the film is ‘tenuous’ and strained dialog serves no better purpose. If Babel is a story about communication and the distance between people, cultures and behavior it should have worked harder at conveying this than suggesting audiences do the work instead. Foreign films often force us to make choices that we are not used to or familiar with and this can be rewarding in and of itself. Babel blurs this line but instead of expanding on the idea with an effort to challenge domestic and international sensibilities, it loses momentum with the result more akin to mixing water and oil – one wins out for a little while before the other returns to start the whole process over again.