Asingle gun shot reverberates around the world in Babel, unexpectedly uniting disparate lives in Morocco, Mexico and Japan.
Thethird collaboration between director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu andscreenwriter Guillermo Arriaga initially seems to lack the bravura edge ofCannes discovery Amores Perros or the soulfulintensity of 21 Grams but it matures into amelancholy meditation on the way in which humanity is one species divided bymisunderstanding, prejudice and fear.
In itsbest moments, this fatalistic, multi-story narrative is reminiscent ofKieslowski's Three Colours Trilogyalthough the film's over-ambitious reach sometimes exceeds its grasp.
Criticalacclaim, the drawing power of the cast and the Inarritu/Arriaga track recordshould combine to make this a surefire attraction for upscale arthouseaudiences.
Therandom consequences of one foolish action underpin the jigsaw puzzle structureof Babel which places less emphasis on jugglingtime and chronology than previous collaborations.
In aremote area of the Moroccan desert, two young brothers compete to show theirprowess with a newly acquired rifle.
Theyounger brother fires at a bus inadvertently wounding American tourist Susan(Cate Blanchett).
Hersubsquent ordeal means that back home in American, her nanny Amelia (AdrianaBarraza) is left with responsibility for Susan's two children on the very dayof her own son's wedding in Mexico.
Shedecides to take the children with her driving across the border with her nephewSantiago (Gael Garcia Bernal).
Meanwhilein Tokyo, deaf, mute girl Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is to discover that she isalso connected to an escalating tragedy that the world's media rushes to reportas an act of terrorism.
Workingon many different levels, Babel is a film about the sense of loneliness andisolation that can exist anywhere in the world from a distant desert village tothe middle of a teeming modern city.
It isabout the difficulty we have in expressing who we are and what we want.
It isabout the fear of other cultures, the suspicion of the unknown, the power thatthe haves exert over the have-nots, the legacy of imperialist assumptions, thebonds between parents and children, the kindness of strangers and theselfishness of those who refuse to see beyond their own needs.
It isonly one film and its wide-ranging dissection of the human condition threatensto become overwhelming.
Unusuallyfor these two collaborators, their promiscuous curiosity also creates problemswithin the film's structure.
Webecome completely involved in the moment only to have the focus shiftelsewhere. When Susan's husband Richard (Brad Pitt) struggles to find her helpwe want to stay with them and discover what happens rather than returning toMexico or Tokyo.
WhenAmelia and Santiago are confronted by hostile border patrol guards we need tofollow that path. We never do learn what happens to Santiago and the Tokyostory feels the most tenuous.
Usinga range of film stocks, cinematographer Roderigo Prieto has created a film ofgreat visual beauty that underlines the separate cultures of each setting.
Thesleek city lights and oppressive crowds in Tokyo are contrasted with thevibrancy of Mexico where the young Mike (Nathan Gamble) watches in horror asSantiago rips a head from a live chicken in preparation for the wedding feast.
Thelocal children don't bat an eye. The varied score from Oscar-winning BrokebackMountain composer Gustavo Santaolalla also helps differentiatethe moods of each locale and proves a unifying force in the emotional impact ofthe film as all the global connections are made and the film becomesincreasingly bittersweet and rueful.
21Grams earned Oscar nominations for Naomi Watts and BenicioDel Toro and there are some equally noteworthy performances in Babel, especially from Cate Blanchett who brings raw emotion to a characteralready deeply wounded before the gunshot is even fired, and from AdrianaBarraza as a woman whose road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Facedwith a more demanding role than the pretty boy nonchalance required for a Mr& Mrs Smith or an Ocean's Eleven caper, a grey-haired, bearded Brad Pitt doesn't disappoint in aconvincing performance fuelled by a barely suppressed anger and frustrationthat are unleashed in a heated flare-up with a fellow tourist and a tendertelephone scene with his distant son.
It isthose kind of emotional depths in Babel thatshould unite viewers to its cause.
US. 2006. 142 mins
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Production company/International sales
Gael Garcia Bernal