It's bullet time at the movies. Martin Scorsese's cops and crooks are clashing are unleashing storms of bullets, and Clint Eastwood's Marines are firing more shots than anyone could hope to count. But in Alejandro González Iñárritu's new film Babel, a single gunshot causes an international crisis. It's a shot heard around the world, and one you won't forget anytime soon.
Who is to blame for that shattering blast? The adolescent shooter? His father, who entrusted him with the rifle? The man who sold them the gun?
In the world according to Iñárritu, we must look past that shot to understand the root cause of the crisis. Like a surgeon exposing tumors, this talented director reveals the fundamental flaw common to everyone involved in calamity. It's a disease that knows no borders. And it runs deeper than any bullet wound.
Babel takes its title from the Genesis tale in which God punishes and scatters an arrogant people by confusing their languages. The film clearly demonstrates that the separation continues. Fault lines run between nations and traditions, but they also splinter to divide communities, families, and marriages. A simple dispute between brothers can tear a rift in history, and a gesture of grace between strangers can make a difference too.
To demonstrate this division, Iñárritu and his screenwriter, Guillermo Arriago, weave plots through Babel's 142 minutes, continuing a trend of complicated big-screen tapestries. Many will compare it to Crash, Magnolia, Syriania, and Traffic. But it's also worthwhile to compare it to Iñárritu's first two films, which were similarly convoluted—the critically acclaimed Amores Perros and his first American effort, 21 Grams.
Babel is the most ambitious of the three, taking us into four strikingly different cultural contexts. In its intricate web of narratives, it is more accomplished and affecting than the Oscar-winning Crash. But it's not likely to be as popular. Audiences found it easy to applaud Crash, because who could possibly argue with its premise? Prejudice is bad, love is good. Babel's revelations are more painful to watch, more discomforting, and ultimately humbling. We're likely to see our own limitations mirrored back to us in uncomfortable ways—flaws that know no borders. (Americans especially could learn from its portrait of tourists becoming impatient with the limitations of other, less-privileged cultures.)
Babel begins in the rugged hills of North Africa, where two boys—Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid)—are protecting their herd of goats with the help of their father's new long-range rifle. Boys and guns are never a good combination, and sure enough, one of them makes a huge mistake that will divide the family and test the wits of local authorities.
The second chapter of the film involves an American couple, Richard and Susan Jones (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), on vacation in Morocco. Nursing the wounds of a recent tragedy, they have left their children back home with the nanny, hoping that an escape will bring them solace. But there's no easy fix for their damaged relationship. And the desert tends to rub tempers raw, especially for those who aren't used to it.