From a dusty mountain top in the vast Moroccan desert, a young, adolescent boy foolishly aims a loaded rifle at white tour bus winding slowly down the barren street. The bullet pierces through the glass with such suddenness it makes you jump and sends shivers down your spine as it lodges quickly and comfortably into the neck of a disgruntled American tourist, Susan (Cate Blanchett). As the warm blood pours out, dying her shirt a deep red, her similarly grumpy husband, Richard (Brad Pitt), quickly jumps into action to save his wife's life as the many occupants of the bus look on, surprisingly unhelpful and unsympathetic. Meanwhile, back in America, their children, Mike and Debbie, are safe at home with their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barazza). Or so she would have the parents believe. Desperate to attend her son's wedding in Mexico and unable to find anyone to look after the children for the day, Amelia decides to bring them with her to the wedding. She enlists the help of her nephew, Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal), to drive her and the children across the border into Mexico. At the same time, a deaf-mute Japanese girl still struggling with the death of her mother spends her time rebelling against her father, trying to seduce dentists and detectives and flaunting her 'hairy monster' to any guy who'll look.
The common thread that weaves intricately through all these stories is of course the rifle shot which fuels the many different stories entwined in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" which won him the Festival De Cannes award for best Director. Or so you would think. However, upon closer inspection it becomes evident that the rifle is not the only common thread. In fact, it is by no means the most significant or powerful common occurrence throughout the four elegantly interlaced tales. Rather, the struggle against helplessness, the feeling of being totally and utterly lost and alone, and overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers is the true message that chains together our four groups of protagonists.
First and foremost, I was hopelessly enraptured by the truly powerful and heartfelt performances of all the cast members. All the younger actors, including those playing the two Moroccan boys, Ahmed and Yussef, as well as the two American children, Mike and Debbie, were very convincing and left me pleasantly surprised.
However, many kudos must be awarded to the Martin Hernandez and his amazing sound team, because for me the sound in Babel was one of the most significant and well done aspects of the entire film. Throughout the film, there was very little nondiegetic music. It only arose when what was being said--or sobbed, or sniveled, or whimpered, or screamed--was not of any significant importance. However, this is not to downplay the beautiful music composed by Gustavo Santaolalla. His compositions helped smooth the transition from one setting to another. We would go from the humdrum string instrument plucking in dusty, desolate Morocco to the upbeat, techno-esque music vibrating through the streets of Tokyo, and then to the frisky, animated Mexican music back in Mexico.
Still, in a film that stretches across four countries, in three different continents, and exposes us to four different languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese and even a little bit of French sprinkled into the mix) and a deaf-mute Japanese girl, sound is bound to be a vital part of the film. Take, for example, a part of the movie where the Mexican maid Amelia has had a stroke of bad luck and is now stuck in the middle of the scorching hot desert with two children clinging to her. Of course, we've seen it before--someone stuck in the middle of nowhere. No matter which way they turn, no one angle seems to hold anymore promise than the other. However, I can say that no movie before "Babel" has been able to make a character's sense of frantic helplessness so infectious and potent that it seeps into your body and spreads to every last fiber of your being. There is no background music to give even the faintest illusion of humanity. The many swift cuts from one angle to the next give you the same frantic, searching feeling that Amelia is surely going through. Your toes curl and you cringe a bit as the camera focuses on her legs and high-heel bearing feet. The hot, yellow sand trying to swallow her with every step she takes as she fights desperately through it, her legs decorated with whitish-pink patches where her skin used to be. Where is the comforting background music that will allude to when salvation is near? Sorry to disappoint, but it's not there. All you hear is the heat-induced panting of Amelia as she fights to stay conscious and not faint from the heat, surely dooming herself and both children to die from the heat.
Of course, the single most interesting and unique aspect the sound team came up with was related to Chieko, the deaf-mute Japanese girl. Initially, she seems a difficult character to relate to, let alone sympathize with. She is bizarre, unstable, disgraceful, even possibly disgusting to some. However, through the use of sound--or rather, lack thereof--we are almost forced to relate and sympathize with Chieko. We are given a sort of subjective-audio point of view, especially when something has happened to upset Chieko. It is then that all sound is cut off, and you're sitting in the same eerie, maddening silence Chieko lives with every day. To simply imagine not being able to hear someone call your name, or to listen to your favorite song, or talk to someone over the phone, and all the other things we can do only because of our ability to talk and hear that we take for granted compels you to at least pity Chieko. Considering we are not completely detached or heartless and are still susceptible to such ploys devised to tug at our heartstrings, it is soon difficult to not relate with Chieko, despite the fact she is perhaps the most uncouth of all the characters we are exposed to.
Next, I feel some recognition should be extended towards the cinematographer and director of photography Rodrigo Prieto. The subtle changes in color that helped us distinguish (but not completely separate) the various countries we were exposed to were all thanks to his genius. As a good movie-watcher you should notice the muted colors of Morocco, and the murky shades in Mexico as opposed to the brighter colors and then the significantly more vibrant hues in America and Tokyo respectively. In addition the the lovely music and scenery itself, the manipulation of the colors helps us get a feel for where we are as well. It is also worth mentioning that almost the entire movie was filmed by use of a hand-held camera, manned by Rodrigo Prieto himself. A feeling of authenticity, urgency, and involvement are all achieved by the predominant use of a hand-held camera.
It is without a doubt in my mind that some people will feel that "Babel" is far too convoluted, coincidental and thus unbelievable to award it the merit it has been awarded. They will say it is simply overblown and miss "Babel" for what it truly is, a message--a plea, in a sense, for cultural integration or, at the very least, acceptance. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film is by far one of the most powerful and captivating films I've seen this year.