Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Emotion needs no translation

'Babel' is a fractured jigsaw of a picture that explores the capriciousness of fate

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In Babel, the actors speak in different tongues but are united by the language of cinema.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FOX

The biblical story of Babel takes up a handful of verses in the 11th chapter of Genesis, and it illustrates, among other things, the terrible consequences of unchecked ambition. As punishment for trying to build a tower that would reach the heavens, the human race was scattered over the face of the earth in a state of confusion — divided, dislocated and unable to communicate. More or less as we find ourselves today.

To make sense of this condition requires an ambition nearly as great as the one that got those ancient architects into trouble in the first place. Any discussion of Babel, therefore — whether grounded in skepticism or lost in admiration — has to begin by acknowledging just how much the film, the third collaboration between the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and the screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, sets out to do.

It tells four distinct stories, disclosing bit by bit the chronology and causality that link them and making much of the linguistic, cultural and geographical distances among the characters. The movie travels — often by means of jarringly abrupt cuts and shifts of tone — from the barren mountains of Morocco, where the dominant sound is howling wind, to fluorescent Tokyo, where the natural world has been almost entirely supplanted by a technological environment, to the anxious border between the US and Mexico. Each place has its own aural and visual palette. The languages used by the astonishingly diverse cast include Spanish, Berber, Japanese, sign language and English. The misunderstandings multiply accordingly, though they tend to be most acute between husbands and wives or parents and children, rather than between strangers.

Film Notes:

Babel

Directed by Alejandro Gonz嫮ez I鼁rrituStarring: Brad Pitt (Richard), Cate Blanchett (Susan), Gael Garc燰 Bernal (Santiago), Koji Yakusho (Yasujiro), Adriana Barraza (Amelia), Rinko Kikuchi (Chieko), Said Tarchani (Ahmed), Boubker Ait El Caid (Yussef), Mustapha Rachidi (Abdullah), Elle Fanning (Debbie), Nathan Gamble (Mike), Mohamed Akhzam (Anwar)Running time: 143 minutes.Taiwan release: Today


Surely, something must hold this world — or, at any rate, this film's vision of the world — together. Whether anything does is the question most likely to fuel the cafe-table arguments Babel will surely provoke. The individual scenes are sometimes so powerful, and put together with such care and conviction, that you might leave the theater feeling dazed, even traumatized. Babel is certainly an experience. But is it a meaningful experience? That the film possesses unusual aesthetic force strikes me as undeniable, but its power does not seem to be tethered to any coherent idea or narrative logic. You can feel it without ever quite believing it.

But let's give feeling its due. The sheer reckless ardor of Gonzalez Inarritu's filmmaking — the voracious close-ups, the sweeping landscape shots, the swiveling, hurtling camera movements — suggests a virtually limitless confidence in the power of the medium to make connections out of apparent discontinuities. His faith in cinema as a universal language could hardly be more evident.

Some of the pieces of Babel are attached to one another by the banal lingua franca of television images, as events in North Africa, for instance, make the evening news in Tokyo. But Gonzalez Inarritu's own visual grammar tries to go deeper, to suggest a common idiom of emotion present in certain immediately recognizable gestures and expressions. We may not be able to read minds or decipher words, he suggests, but we can surely decode faces, especially when we see them at close range and in distress. Loss, fear, pain, anguish — none of these emotions, it seems, are likely to be lost in translation.

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