An attractive couple is on vacation in Morocco, and it is not going well at all. Apparently the husband came up with this suggestion. Did he think a trip to an exotic, difficult and vaguely unsettling locale would help them get over a recent traumatic experience?
Not that this has all been spelled out. All we know for sure is they're one of those not-quite-young-any-more couples who have been through a lot together and can all too easily fall into a nasty little dispute about something like whether it's a smart idea to add ice to a warm Diet Coke, because God knows what's in the water here.
This is one of the early scenes in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's magnificent epic "Babel," one of the most challenging and saddest movies of the year--and also one of the most memorable.
Brad Pitt, who, like George Clooney, is becoming a much more interesting actor now that his face shows some experience -- plays the husband, Richard. (It is a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, especially if the marketing people are smart enough to campaign for a supporting actor nod.) Cate BLanchett is his wife, Susan. Their argument seems like just a little throwaway scene, a bit of character establishment, in the grand scheme of this sprawling story that jumps across continents and across time, a la "Syriana." The same could be said of our first glimpses of many of the other major players, including a Moroccan goat-herder buying a used rifle he'll use to chase off pesky jackals; a Mexican nanny in California tending to two young children, and an intense, angry teenage Japanese girl having a temper fit and losing a volleyball game for her team.
Soon all of them will be plunged into charged, life-changing situations -- and thanks to those short, pitch-perfect introductions, we are already invested in their lives. They are flawed but sympathetic, and they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and we want them to find a soft landing from the dangerous ledges on which they stand.
Shots ring out, and people are severely injured and even killed in "Babel," but there are no conventional villains only victims of a society governed by fear, and a fragile world susceptible to the consequences of tragic misunderstandings. As they did with "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" (two of the best films of this decade), Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga have fashioned a complex, ambitious narrative about a planet that has been made small by global communication, but remains divided by vast chasms in culture and language (hence the biblical title).
"Babel" features two of the most heartbreaking performances of the year not from the name stars, who are quite good in their own right -- but from actresses you probably don't know. Rinko Kikuchi is Chieko, the deaf-mute Japanese teen who has been consumed with anger and self-loathing since the suicide of her mother (and most likely well before that). She acts out by flashing the snickering boys at a local hangout, coming on to her dentist, even trying to seduce a police detective. Kikuchi is enormously effective in a role that requires considerable exposure, physically and otherwise. (In one brilliantly shot scene, we experience a nightclub through Chieko's point of view, as she is engulfed in utter silence as sweaty dancers writhe erotically to the pounding beat. In an instant, we understand that she is always going to feel like an outsider.)
The wonderfully expressive Adriana Barraza plays Amelia, the Mexican nanny who is looking after Richard and Susan's two children while they're in Morocco. (The bulk of her storyline actually kicks in just about the time Richard and Susan's struggles have reached a climax.) She is a good woman who loves the children -- but she makes a terrible decision in dragging them along to Mexico for her son's wedding. On the way back, her drunken nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) gets into a hassle with the border guards, jump-starting a series of increasingly unfortunate events that results in the nanny and the two kids fighting for their lives.
A tour bus winds over a desert road in Morocco. Two young brothers are playing with the rifle their dad just bought. They are trying to impress each other with their marksmanship skills. One takes aim at the bus, which seems a million miles away -- and he pulls the trigger.
The bullet hits Susan in the neck. At first Richard doesn't even know what happened to his wife as she slumps over, until he sees the blood gushing and realizes she's been shot. Richard doesn't care about anything other than getting his wife to a hospital -- but the bus is almost literally in the middle of nowhere, and some of his fellow tourists don't want to wait for around for hours for an ambulance or a doctor to arrive. Who's to say there won't be another terrorist attack? That's who committed this act, right? A terrorist?
We know otherwise, of course. Even as the international political world vibrates with the repercussions of the shooting, Moroccan police officials are closing in on the truth. In other narrative pockets, Gonzalez Inarritu withholds information from us so at first we don't see the connection between the Japanese girl's father and the Moroccan goat-herder, or the relationship between Richard and Susan and that nanny in San Diego.
Although "Babel" isn't about surprise twists, we have to patiently wade through the time-shifting construction and the shifts in locales a technique sure to frustrate and confuse some viewers, and certain to incur the wrath of some critics. (Probably some of the same critics who hated "Crash," a coincidence-laden fable with a few similar themes.)
I found it engrossing, draining and worth the stress. So many films don't ask you to do anything but sit back and put your mind on hold for a couple of hours. I welcome a work that requires you to engage with the story, to make some effort to decipher what is happening.
"Babel" is not an easy film to watch. (Though it is filmed in gorgeous, dramatic tones.) We have four stories taking place in four countries, with characters speaking five languages. The timeline is not linear. And there are at least a half-dozen wrenching scenes -- the kinds of moments that make people gasp or whisper "oh, no," in the theater.
It will put you through the wringer. When you have emerged, you will feel richer for having taken the challenge.