They say the gun that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and plunged Europe into war fired “the shot that was heard around the world.” In Babel, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga take that idea literally, a single rifle shot in the deserts of Morocco sending shock waves across the globe. Three continents, four families, five lives in the balance: the stakes are undeniably high. Essentially, though, that careless bullet fulfils the same function as the car collision in Amores Perros or the hit-and-run in 21 Grams – a convenient dramatic catalyst that allows the duo to weave together disparate strands in a complex, interlocking narrative. The canvas may be bigger, but the brushstrokes remain the same.
If Babel emerges as the most mature, rich and satisfying of their works to date – for all its anguish, the overriding emotion is hope – it’s because Iñárritu and Arriaga have finally constructed a film that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Each piece in the puzzle unfolds at a thrilling velocity, events spiralling out of control in a whirlwind of rash judgements, linguistic barriers and sheer bad luck. Thrown together they form a multi-dimensional helix full of revealing parallels and startling juxtapositions. One stunning cut connects the wailing distress of Blanchett’s wounded tourist, as a bullet is extracted from her shoulder, with the silent segregation of Kikuchi’s Japanese teen. By separating the firing of that fateful missile with its impact, meanwhile, the script puts a disorienting distance between cause and effect – an ingenious device that hits home in the closing stages when a phone conversation overheard at the beginning of the film is reprised once more, its full significance finally clear.
Star wattage inevitably concentrates our attention on the Pitt-Blanchett story shard, and that focus is duly repaid in an engrossing portrait of mounting desperation and bureaucratic incompetence where the former’s sweaty rage is vividly complemented by the latter’s injury-enforced status. As impressive as both are, however, their thread never develops as intriguingly as that involving Gael García Bernal as the hothead whose reckless impetuosity has serious consequences for the American couple’s children and nanny.
If the Tokyo plotline feels tonally and structurally tangential to the rest of the action, it’s a price worth paying for Kikuchi’s revelatory performance as the troubled rebel struggling to connect with her technologically vibrant environment. Her character ends up being Babel’s most striking symbol of the isolation we all feel in a world where communication, ironically, has never been easier.
For all its contrivances, Babel offers a gripping treatise on fate, chance and language with an epic sweep that leaves you marvelling at its ambition.