If you find Alejandro González Iñárritu and his screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s films increasingly heavy and moralising, look away. For non-fans the only reason to buy the two-disc release of their third feature Babel is Common Ground, a detailed, mostly engaging and occasionally icky 90-minute Making Of, which just about justifies that lofty “two-disc collector’s edition” sell on the cover. As it starts, cast and crew stand in a circle, holding hands, Iñárritu talking about how films can’t change the world but can change us by toppling our internal barriers, helping us communicate. Mmmm. Don’t you feel all yummy inside, knowing you can lead-pepper your prejudices if you “get” Babel? What is this, ‘We Are The World’?
Okay, so it’s easy to be sarcastic in the face of sincerity (especially in the light of Iñárritu and Arriaga’s public falling out over the movie) so let’s get the carping done first. The makers aren’t breaking ground in Babel, although this time they project their jigsaw-plotting onto an ambitiously global stage. The duo’s earlier mosaic-movies were the punchy Amores Perros and the ponderous 21 Grams, which linked disparate characters via car crashes. Babel’s connecting plot-tissue is a gunshot fired by two Moroccan kids from their family goat farm. The shot reverberates globally, its impactees being a holidaying American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), a deaf-mute Japanese girl (an Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi) and a Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza, another Oscar nominee). Rich thematic juice? Maybe. Ever-diminishing ripple effects? Maybe that, too.
At any rate, Babel didn’t hit the US or UK box-office bullseye, despite having Pitt, Blanchett and Gael Garciacutea Bernal in its barrels. You can guess why. We’ve seen Iñárritu’s plot-games before: it’s the schtick he beats his stories with. Secondly, there’s a whiff of preachiness to its getting-global theme, which, at worst, veers towards charity-ad lite. As Iñárritu lectures two kids about the Tower of Babel in Common..., your heart goes out to the sprogs.
Beyond its cumbersome contrivances and preaching, though, Babel does pack some ammo. Cast-wise, Iñárritu gets gripping turns from his non-professional players and Common... proves how much care and attention that takes. Star-wise, he achieves the opposite, the intended effect being to make us forget they are stars by blending them into an ensemble. Pitt in particular shows great restraint: when he could be lighting fireworks, he lets the sandy lines around his eyes tell the story.
And Iñárritu can do restraint, too. A clubbing scene in Japan cuts the sound and takes the perspective of the deaf-mute Chieko (Kikuchi), conveying empathy without verbiage; a bloodied Blanchett takes calming hashish from an old Moroccan woman; a Mexican wedding kicks off thrillingly. It doesn’t matter if they’re quiet or loud: these scenes major in unencumbered empathy and attentiveness, unfolding in incidents isolated from the attention-seeking fuss of overcooked plotting and forced subtext.
Get past the laboured structure and the overstated sense that you’re Watching Something Terribly Important, then, and Babel does hit some of its targets, creating a heady, stinging portmanteau about a world in which fate spins on a dime, rich countries get happy endings and poor countries don’t, and technology and humanity haven’t advanced hand in hand. Iñárritu and Arriaga might have worked wonders if they had played Babel straight and embraced understatement. It’s about communication: let the story speak for itself.