Alejandro González Iñárritu's much lauded Babel is a very good film that suffers from some flaws that prevent it from being truly great in my eyes. Like his previous film, 21 Grams (and Amores Perros, which I haven't seen), this is a somber film about tragedy and suffering and the way people's lives are interconnected. And like those earlier films, this also features multiple storylines told in a fractured, non-linear manner.
There are four stories being told in the film. One is about two American tourists in Morocco, Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett). While driving through a remote area in a tour bus, Susan is mysteriously shot. Richard has the tour bus stop at a nearby village and tries to get her treatment while also trying to get assistance from the US embassy. The shooting of an American in Morocco leads to tension between the two governments, with the incident being attributed to terrorists. Another storyline concerns two young Moroccan brothers, Yussef and Ahmed (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchini) who are given a gun by their father to kill the jackals that hunt their livestock. In the midst of sibling rivalry, the boys end up testing the gun by taking shots at distant vehicles, resulting in Yussef shooting the tour bus and hitting Susan. A third story is about a Mexican nanny (Amelia, played by Adriana Barraza) in the US who, when left in the lurch by her employers, is forced to take the two children under her care with her into Mexico (accompanied by her nephew Santiago, played by Gael García Bernal) to attend her son's wedding. The fourth, and in my opinion the best, story is set in Japan and is about a deaf mute teenage girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) who is dealing with the death of her mother and feeling alienated, a feeling that is exacerbated by her disability.
All of these stories are linked together in some way. All of the characters in the film suffer and experience misfortune, with characters contributing to others' misfortunes in some way. The irony of the story is that, despite the fact that these people's lives overlap and influence each other's across the globe, there're still massive cultural and communicational barriers between them that contribute to their suffering. Even people who are close together physically are unable to reach out to each other.
There's a LOT going on in this film, most of which plays on these themes of communication and lack of understanding. In Chieko's case, her inability to hear and speak is an immediate hurdle that causes others to discriminate against her. Even her relationship with her father (Kôji Yakusho) is strained. Richard and Susan haven't come to terms with the recent death of their child, and are unable to talk to each other properly as a result. The kids under Amelia's care may be able to understand Spanish, but can't fully understand what happens at the Mexican wedding they attend (although they perhaps acclimatise to their environment better than adults would have). Amelia and her nephew also encounter difficulties with border patrol officials because of deep-seated mistrust. Yussef and Ahmed and their family have certain sibling issues, and there is a great deal of enmity between the local populace and the authorities who crack down on them to find the shooter.
And there's a lot more. The film is littered with overt and subtle elements that all feel real and add up to paint a complex and tragic picture. The diverse locations, languages, and cultures feel authentic; there's a sense of uniqueness and individuality to all the people depicted, but there are also common traits that connect them all together as human beings. The interaction between people feels genuine. All of this interwoven detail, diversity, and complexity should result in a brilliant film, and it almost does. There are, however, some incredibly incongruous storytelling devices that rob the film of greatness. These are implausible or unsubtle events that are used to throw the characters into difficult situations, many of which rely on characters doing incredibly stupid things.
Take Amelia's story, where she's (quite improbably, in context) unable to find someone to take care of her charges and so casually takes them with her across the border while being an illegal immigrant. Then, on the way back to the U.S., there is a series of decisions and incidents leading up to and following the border crossing which enters the realm of ludicrousness. The manner in which the two Moroccan brothers shoot the bus taxes my willingness to suspend disbelief - ignoring the fact that the shot was incredibly unlikely (a cinematic convention I can swallow), the two are mature enough to realize the consequences of what they've done as soon as they do it. Which begs the question, why'd they do it in the first place? We're meant to believe they were caught up in a moment of heated rivalry, but I can't buy that they were willing to attempt to shoot people to one up each other, especially given how quickly they realize the enormity of what they've done. Later, the two kids and their father also do some silly things like engage in an impossible and unnecessary firefight. Even the Susan / Richard storyline has some weak elements involving arguments between Richard and the other tourists who want to leave the village.
These criticisms may sound minor - after all, they are only a handful of scenes in a densely packed film. It may seem that I'm disproportionately playing up a few small negative elements. However, these moments are key events that directly cause the problems that the characters are forced to deal with. Normally, I can accept one or two such contrivances, but with so many of them being used in this manner, it feels like a cheat. These acts of stupidity are so egregious that they undermine a central theme of the film - that lack of communication leads to conflict - and replace it with the more obvious concept of stupid decisions leading to tragic consequences. The film is trying to convey profound truths (and I think they are profound); profound truths shouldn't have to rely on unconvincing gimmicks. If these key elements had been written more honestly and more in tune with the rest of the film, Babel would've been much, much, better.
Iñárritu's work on the film and the script are excellent, although this time around the fractured narrative isn't as effective. The connections between the stories are tenuous and don't pack the punch that they need to warrant the manner in which they are revealed. On technical merits, again the film is excellent. The acting is top notch across the board, with the young and unfamiliar players - Rinko Kikuchi, Ait El Caid, and Said Tarchini - being among the standouts.
Babel is a very good film that isn't as good as it could have been. I can understand how for some the flaws I've cited will seem minor (or nonexistent), and for those people the film will no doubt be something special. For me, the flaws detract substantially. Add to that the fact that it has a pervasively dour and depressing outlook on life, with only a few moments of joy, and the end result is a film that I'm not a fan of (I didn't much care for the morose soundtrack either). I'd still recommend it however, because warts and all it's definitely worth watching.