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Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt in Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Iñárritu's previous two movies were the exceptional Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Babel is considered the third of this trilogy, and indeed, it shares the scope and depth of the previous two. While there is no direct connection between the three films in terms of plot or characters, Iñárritu's films are a complex crossover of experiences, beauty, and an overwhelming sense of grief lying underneath the surface of every scene. (A feeling Naomi Watts had in Grams and seems to carry in EVERY film she touches.) Here Iñárritu has expanded his scope to cover a multinational palette of characters and experiences ranging from the United States to Japan, Morocco, and Mexico. Yet, as far-reaching as the experiences seem environmentally, Iñárritu has found that common sense of humanity and loss in each varied experience.
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When a man in the audience stood to ask the cast a question, he decided to address Cate Blanchett. He went on and on for about three minutes about how Blanchett gets better and better in every role. That she only builds on it in this and how much he blah-blah-blahs. (She studied her shoes.) Then, when reminded he was supposed to be asking a question (oh yeah...THAT), he asked how she did it with practically no dialogue. When the host digested all this, he said into the microphone, "The question is..." Without missing a beat, Blanchett jumped on him and said, "No, what he was trying to say is that I'm terrific." And then blushed at the hilarious uproar. It was my favorite part of the night.
Babel is primarily informed by its deep sense of loss and its characters' desperate desire for those rare moments of joy and transcendence. Iñárritu, himself a buoyant bundle of expressiveness, spoke of his need to speak to something universal after the tragedies of 9/11. Indeed, it is quite fascinating that in all the stories depicted, it is the American couple that seems washed out, grayed, and looking to find some meaning in their marriage and their life after losing a child. Iñárritu orchestrates each of these stories with an overarching sense of dread. Even when the film carries the director's sense of vibrancy (the boys playing, the Mexican wedding, or a girl at a club) one can’t help but feel on edge in these heightened moments of joy.
Babel is receiving some backlash about town, as all films do once the rewards start stacking up, for its overly sprawling narrative as a device or gimmick. Indeed, last year’s Best Picture winner, Crash, has not held up well under critical opinion for that very reason. Certainly, Babel isn’t above such accusations. There is a fourth storyline centered on a Japanese schoolgirl, her relationship to her father, and the loss of her mother. The girl (Rinko Kikuchi) is deaf and is heart-breakingly desirous for someone to see her. These sequences are some of the film's most tragic and beautiful, as Iñárritu envelops us in her muted world and makes us ache with her desperate attempts at connection. Yet, in hindsight, one finds this distant storyline thinly connected to the others. On its own it is strange, disturbing, and beautiful but feels like it is standing alone in juxtaposition to the rest. Yet, I could argue, writer Guillermo Arriaga (also the scribe for Perros and Grams) would like you to connect the fourth simply through feeling.
At the post-screening discussion alongside Iñárritu were Kikuchi, Barraza, and the luminous Cate Blanchett. What was most catching, besides that graceful bird, Blanchett, was how the cast listened so attentively to one another, even when they did not speak the same language. All were keenly poised, as if they were trying to decipher the other's mystery simply through digestion of their presence. Once the criticism burns off the top layer of this film what will be left is feeling. A feeling of connectedness through loss and an understanding of ourselves through simple humanity.
No matter what the language.