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

It gives nothing away to note that every story in Babel ends in tears. The raw, naturalistic intimacy of Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography disguises some flagrant melodrama, as does the dedication of the actors, some of whom have never appeared on film before.

The most glamorous cast members are Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, who play an American couple on a desultory vacation in Morocco, trying to repair the damage done to their marriage by the death of their infant son. Their movie-star charisma is turned down to a low, flickering flame, and the easy sense of entitlement they sometimes betray belongs naturally to their characters, Susan and Richard, who nonetheless receive a brutal reminder that even the privileged are vulnerable to accident.

Susan — the kind of tourist who worries that the local ice cubes carry disease — is badly wounded when a bullet is fired through a bus window, hitting her in the neck. The bullet comes from a gun belonging to Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi), a goatherd, and used by his two sons, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), to keep jackals away from the herd.

The gunmen and their victim are never in the frame together, and the consequences of the incident unfold in parallel crises. Susan and Richard wind up in a small town, waiting for an ambulance, facing the panic and impatience of their fellow holidaymakers and relying on the kindness of strangers. Abdullah and his sons and neighbors, for their part, must deal with the harsh attentions of the Moroccan police, who are trying to defuse what threatens to become an international incident.

Meanwhile, Richard and Susan's surviving children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) travel to Mexico with the family's housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), whose son is getting married near Tijuana. They are accompanied by Amelia's roughneck nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal, who clearly relishes playing the heavy for once).

And in Tokyo, a deaf teenage girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) spins through the emotional upheavals of adolescence, which are intensified both by her disability — or, more precisely, the obtuse way other people respond to it — and by the aftershocks of her mother's death.

Chieko's brazen attempts to solicit attention result, again and again, in humiliation, and Kikuchi's performance is an unnerving blend of sexual provocation, timidity and sheer rage. Of all the characters in Babel, she seems most surprising and least tethered to cultural stereotype (in spite of the short-skirted schoolgirl uniform she wears). And her story, unfolding without evident connection to the other three, does not seem quite as bound by the fatalism that is Arriaga's hallmark — as well as his limitation — as a storyteller.

The splintered, jigsaw-puzzle structure of Babel will be familiar to viewers who have seen Amores Perros or 21 Grams, the other two features Arriaga and Gonzalez Inarritu have made together. Indeed, this movie belongs to an increasingly common, as yet unnamed genre — Crash is perhaps the most prominent recent example — in which drama is created by the juxtaposition of distinct stories, rather than by the progress of a single narrative arc.

Perhaps the most common feature of movies of this kind is that they are more interested in fate than in psychology. The people in Babel behave irrationally — if often quite predictably — but any control they appear to have over their own lives is illusory. They suffer unequally and unfairly, paying disproportionately for their own mistakes and for the whims of chance and the laws of global capitalism.

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