'Babel' tries to make sense of nonsense


BEIRUT: It won the best director prize at this year's Cannes film festival. It just got promising nods from the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America. It has been nominated for seven Golden Globes. It is considered a major contender for the Oscars. And now, fresh off appearances at the sixth Marrakech International Film Festival and the third Dubai International Film Festival, "Babel" is finally screening in theaters throughout Beirut.

Based on an idea by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who directed the film) and Guillermo Arriaga (who penned the script), "Babel" is considered the final installment in a trilogy that began with "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams." Like the first two films, "Babel" intertwines numerous narratives and characters, all of whom turn out to be connected, though some more tenuously so than others.

In the forbidding Moroccan mountains of Tazarine, a grizzled old man named Hassan Ibrahim (Abdelkader Bara) sells a rifle to his neighbor, Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi). Abdullah, in turn, wants his sons Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) to master the gun so they can pick off the jackals that threaten to wipe out their goat herd and with it their livelihood. Neither Ahmed nor Yussef buy Ibrahim's claim that the rifle has a range of several kilometers so they decide to test it out.

Young male boasting and a bit of sibling rivalry lead them to the rather dumb idea of taking aim at distant vehicles. A shot rings out. Nothing happens. "These bullets are lame," sniffs Yussef. Ahmed turns to gather their stuff and step down from their cliff-side perch. Then a blood curdling scream starts to rise up and echo from an oversized tour bus that has ground to a halt on a mountain road below. Yussef and Ahmed eye each other nervously, then run for it.

As it turns out, that shot strikes an American woman named Susan (Cate Blanchett) in her left shoulder, just below the collarbone. Susan and her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) had been vacationing, expedition-style, in a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, deeply troubled since the crib death of their third child. When Richard notices that Susan is gushing blood, their fellow passengers, many of them pink, fat and presumably privileged, immediately assume they are under terrorist attack. Morocco must be teaming with impoverished, thin, brown, Islamist fanatics who are out to get them, after all. So the tourists won't let Richard take the bus to a hospital. Instead, they go to the village of the young - and generous and selfless - Moroccan tour guide.

In essence, that rifle shot in Morocco presses the play button on three stories involving four families. Running at different speeds and at varying intensities, these narratives twist and turn for the duration of the two-and-a-half hour film.

In San Diego, Susan and Richard's two children are being cared for by their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza). Because the shooting incident delays the parents' return, Amelia decides to take the kids with her across the border to Mexico, where she is to attend her son's wedding near Tijuana, oblivious to the fact that her action without a parental permission slip is technically illegal.

In Tokyo, Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho) is struggling to deal with the death of his wife and the adolescence of his daughter Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), whose already painful pubescence is compounded by the fact that she is deaf and mute. Yasujiro, we soon discover, used to hunt, and on a trip to North Africa, he once presented his guide, an able and decent man named Hassan Ibrahim, with a rifle that possessed notably powerful range.

"Babel" is a film full of audiovisual texture. It is told in several languages, including Berber-inflected Moroccan Arabic, Japanese, English, Mexican Spanish and sign language. This linguistic complexity befits the title, which refers to the biblical story in Genesis where humankind tries to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. As punishment for its ambition, humankind is promptly divided by language and condemned forever to failures of communication and translation. Thus babel's contemporary usage meaning nonsense.

Each set piece in the film - the San Diego/Tijuana set piece, the Moroccan set piece, the Tokyo set piece - is amplified by Gustavo Santaolalla's marvelous score and Rodrigo Prieto's riveting cinematography. None of the locations come off as cliched. Instead, Inarritu drinks in from each place a deluge of details that are as incongruous as they are stereotypical.

If "Amores Perros" was contained within Mexico City and "21 Grams" within a larger though largely nondescript city in the United States, then with "Babel" Inarritu has gone global: from Mexico to America to the world (and from budgets of $2 million to $25 million along the way). It is tempting to take all of the latest film's pieces and plot them out differently. (Thankfully, Lebanon's censor has not done this for the benefit of local audiences, though it has clipped a scene of Chieko pulling a Sharon Stone-style anatomy flash).

Does the disjuncture between the three different locations conform to the time difference between them? Is the story the most chronologically advanced in Tokyo or is time somehow suspended and warped by the fact that Chieko and her friends pop pills in the afternoon and trip their socks off well into the night?

Some critics have slammed "Babel" for being a lot of po-mo bells and whistles but hollow at the core. Certainly Inarritu pierces the skin and rubs salt in the proverbial wound over and over and over again. He trades in nearly unbearable tragedy. In all of his films, he takes from his characters the exact things they cannot live without - money, children, a model's leg, a man's heart - and seems to say, Okay, now what? What will you do?

"Babel" is a bitter indictment of the hysteria manufactured daily by the so-called "war on terror." If it is an emblem of globalization, then it is also by necessity a kind of cautionary tale. Beyond spoken languages, it amplifies how communication hits and misses even when transmitted through sound, sexuality, ritual, gesture, body language and the mechanisms of interrogation (deferential in Japan, barking in the US, brutal in Morocco).

When the film screened during the Marrakech International Film Festival, local audiences packed themselves into a theater filled to the rafters, with thousands more waiting outside. Inarritu reunited with Kikuchi and the Moroccan cast and gave a heartfelt thanks to the country he has been visiting since the age of 18. Meanwhile, the mothers of Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid took to spit-shining their young sons' hair. The audience erupted into applause over and over again. Hometown pride can do that, but rare is a film that could elicit such a response in so many places at once.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" is playing now in theaters throughout Beirut





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