By Noel Vera

Dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (2006)

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" (2006) is excellently directed, I think; what I'm not sure of, even when the end credits have started rolling, is exactly what it's directed at.

Is Inarritu trying to make some kind of statement about communication - the more connected we are, the more isolated we've become?


I thought Kurosawa Kyoshi in "Kairo" (Pulse, 2001), for one, has delved into that issue on a far more metaphysically and metaphorically imaginative level.

Was he trying to show us the impact the United States and its citizens have on other countries - how an incident involving two American tourists can create a firestorm of social and political turmoil on one hand, and how a vast American construct (its fenced and guarded southern border with Mexico) can dash the hopes and dreams of a humble illegal immigrant on the other? If so, what's the Japanese storyline for? A tenuous link is proposed, but it's a laughably farfetched one: you come away with the somber if headscratching moral: "guns do not good presents make."

Perhaps it's meant to do all of the above? Films nowadays, especially films as ambitious as this, don't need to be particularly focused to earn awards; they just need a broad canvas, some cursory playing around with conventional narrative--in this case, four separate stories linked together by a central event (an accidental shooting), then chronologically shuffled--and a royal flush of Hollywood stars (Brad Pitt, as vacuous as ever, throwing celebrity tantrums right and left) to give the whole project respectability.

Inarritu did it once and did it best I think, in his breakout film "Amores Perros" (Love's a bitch, 2000), where gritty dogfights are intercut with mysteriously vanished pets (Inarritu's variation on The Twilight Zone, I suppose), and a hit man / homeless vagrant shuffles his way to redemption, all three stories linked together by a central event (a car accident).

Inarritu was at least familiar with the milieu (the streets and alleys of Mexico), his 'vision' felt reasonably fresh, and his budget was small enough that one tended to forgive him his melodramatic excesses (the embarrassingly romantic notion, for one, that a homeless man can double as a professional killer). I was far less crazy about his 2004 film "21 Grams," where three separate stories (a mother who loses her family; a professor with a weak heart; a recovering drug addict) are linked together by a central event (a car accident--sounds familiar?).

One can't help but accuse Inarritu of being repetitive--of pulled the same rabbit out of his hat time and time again, with diminishing results. The world is full of evil and violence? We're all connected? Truth is where you happen to be standing? Tell us something we don't know--or, if you can't, tell us in a way that we haven't already seen.

The film's at its best when trying to show life as lived in differing parts of the world--a wedding in Mexico where a mother dances with her long-unseen son; a popular hangout joint in Tokyo where Japanese youths are jammed together in a somehow reassuring crush; best of all, a boy and his younger brother, arms outstretched, leaning into the wind rushing up the mountainside. Inarritu is a champion of the poor and disaffected, and represents them best when he's not pushing his agenda too hard; when he shows them suffering all kinds of contrived situations (a freak gun shot; an inexplicable sexual hunger; a chain of unfortunate events at a border crossing) it uplifts one's eyebrow more often than it does one's consciousness.

Far be it for me to teach Inarritu his business--all right, maybe I'm trying to do just that, but how persuasive can a filmmaker be when his view of his characters is so consistently dim? Can people be as stupid as they are in his pictures? Crossing the border when one is illegally in the country is not the smartest thing in the world to do, but why cross back at night (when in all probability you're the only one around, subject to the border guards' full attention), with a drunk driver? Why leave one's charges behind in the middle of the desert to seek help (If you're that dumb, how could you have evaded the INS for sixteen years?)?


Likewise, testing a rifle by firing at moving vehicles isn't exactly brilliant, or even sensible, but what earthly reason would cause you to run to the mountains when the police come looking? And fire back at the officers when they find you? It's clear that realistic texture--the way people sit or stand or look around--is Inarritu's forte, but he has trouble portraying the way they really think about or react to or make decisions on the world around them. Given a choice, he opts for the most pessimistic alternative, producing the most melodramatic results.

The film is all the more disappointing because it's clear that he's got a real filmmaking sensibility. I'm not the world's biggest fan of handheld shots--after Von Triers and Tony Scott and more than half the horror movies made in recent years, if I don't see another lurching point-of-view camera for the rest of my life it'd be too soon--but Inarritu is able to stitch the footage together to produce a tempo that's both graceful and genuinely exciting; exciting not because the beat is so fast, but because it's clear that the man knows what he's doing (visually and rhythmically, anyway).

And knowing that the man came from radio (he was a DJ for some years), it's not surprising that, like Orson Welles, he can do breathtaking things with sound--I remember in particular a scene where the camera follows a Japanese deaf-mute girl into a dance club, and the flashing lights and throbbing music rise to a crescendo, only to suddenly fall away in silence. The lights still flash, but we're hearing the world through the girl's nonfunctioning ears, and the shock of silence, the sudden remove from all that is aurally familiar, is deafening.

The Japanese segment is the weakest and least thematically relevant segment in the film, and the main character as written (and played with misplaced sincerity by Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi) is more a storytelling conceit (nymphomaniac teeny bopper seeks sex from the nearest available man) than a real character, but for at least those few moments style wins out over substance (or the lack of it), and we feel we understand the girl's awful loneliness.

But that's for a few moments; for the rest of the film's length--all 142 minutes of it--we're subject to a treatise on how Life Can Be a Bitch (Even in Wealthy Tokyo). One expects more from Inarritu; hopefully one will, in future projects.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 01/26/07.
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February 9 , 2007