The Theory of Chaos

Monday, February 05, 2007


: Alejandro González Iñárritu
: Guillermo Arriaga, based on an idea by Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu
: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Steve Golin, Jon Kilik
: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani, Mustapha Rachidi, Adriana Barraza, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble, Mohamed Akhzam, Rinko Kikuchi, Shinji Suzuki

When you enter someone’s home, you also enter their history
. This is what I thought during one of the climactic scenes of Babel, which finds that the same holds true for entering someone’s country. This sprawling, ambitious drama from writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu – also collaborators on Amores Perros and 21 Grams – is really four stories, vignettes with the momentum of one-act plays. Each provides a variation on the theme of communication and cultural understanding, and how sometimes the arbitrary punishments of fate are the most difficult to accept.

These stories each unfold over the course of a day, and are each connected by an object – a rifle; or rather, a single bullet from that rifle that has an impact far beyond its accidental target. Because we’re in three different parts of the world, the timelines are not consistent, we will see one thread from the beginning connected to another’s ending by a phone call, but it’s part of
Babel’s central idea – that life never stops moving, that cause, effect and consequence do not wait for your convenience.

It is always emotional and often mesmerizing, because it puts such primacy on rhythm and atmosphere. It is keenly interested in place, and the tiny details of life in that place. Authenticity breeds sympathy – many, many characters in
Babel do the wrong thing, the inexcusable thing. They each seem detached from the drastic effects their actions could potentially have until it’s too late. But life does not offer them simple choices, and we believe that many of these characters, in spite of their actions, are good, or want to be good. Each story offers us a journey into a different world – from foreign cultures to the private suffering that happens behind walls and silence. That act of revelation and sharing does not always have good consequences for all the individuals involved, but the movie has a gift for presenting it as inevitable, and right. If all systems left to their own devices move towards chaos, this movie says that all people, acting with free will, move towards truth, however costly the journey.

The rifle was given to a hunting guide in Morocco, who sold it to a herder (Mustapha Rachidi) in the mountains for money and a goat. The herder gives it to his two adolescent sons, so they can protect the herd from predators. Instead, sibling hostility leads to a contest of marksmanship, and the younger son Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) fires at a faraway tourist bus driving through the valley.

The bullet strikes an American tourist, Susan (Cate Blanchett), who has been traveling with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) in the hopes of moving on from a horrible tragedy. But you never really leave sadness behind on vacation, and we can feel how Richard suffers from the mistakes he’s made and his indomitable desire to keep reaching out to Susan until she lets him in again. The bullet shatters the fragile sense of safety for them and every other traveler on board – life reduces in a flash to a number of implacable truths: the nearest hospital is hours away, as is the only gas station, the bus is the only working vehicle, the nearest village has only one telephone and one English speaker, the act of dispatching medical help is causing a diplomatic smash-up (the American Embassy is placing an unhealthy emphasis on finding a way to label this a terrorist act), and Susan is losing blood. Richard cannot let his wife pass out, cannot accede to her wish that he stay by her side the whole time, and most of all, cannot let that bus full of overheated, impatient tourists leave.

Pitt’s acting, as with everyone’s in the movie, is reduced to the barest elements of need – without flash or vanity he gives one of the best performances of his career by never trying to play outside the moment. Blanchett, as is her custom, sculpts a three-dimensional life in the screen time allotted her with an ease that seems almost effortless.

Meanwhile in America, young children Debbie and Mike (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) are in the care of their longtime nanny and housekeeper Amelia (Adriana Barraza). The relief that was supposed to arrive today so she could attend her son’s wedding in Mexico has not arrived, and so she must choose how to reconcile her responsibilities to two families, her blood and her American patrons.

And off in Japan, a deaf-mute girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) wanders streets and clubs on a self-annihilating mission to throw away her virginity, and wonders why police detectives keep arriving at her door to harass her father (Kôji Yakusho) about a tragedy she wants to be able to forget – or, at least, keep lying to herself about.

So every story deals with map boundaries and language barriers, past mistakes and dreadful misunderstandings. We may not agree with the choices the characters are making, some of them seem so perverse or ill-fated, but Babel’s chief virtue is its empathy. It is masterful in its ability to present all points of view – we might never have imagined before how an uneducated and isolated boy in a strongly religious culture might process his sexual awakening. Where Babel succeeds as a movie is in, simply with honesty and attention to detail, staying our innate instinct to pass judgment.

It is a triumph of filmmaking on all levels, especially in the way cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, 8 Mile) and production designer Brigitte Broch (She Hate Me, Real Women Have Curves) bring each corner of the globe to distinctive life. The flashing pop sensation overload of Japan seems like another planet compared to the rustic poverty and chaos of a Mexican wedding, yet they are all connected by this incident, and by the urgent feelings of its participants. Each is in a state where they feel like no need could be stronger than their own in that moment. Babel is about how such moments can, and should, bring us together.


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