Released 2005. Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
IN A REMOTE MOUNTAIN VILLAGE IN MOROCCO, two goat-herding boys try to shoot jackals with their father’s hunting rifle. A Mexican nanny and two young American children are lost in the desert after running foul of border crossing. In Tokyo, a deaf mute teenage girl’s self-pity pushes her to the brink.
These people across three continents do not know each other. Yet they are connected in some tragic and powerful way. Not for the first time, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu weaves fateful ties using disparate characters who appear at first to have nothing to do with one another, only to become inextricably entangled on a deeper level.
Causality, universal connections, these are not fresh concepts in movies. But Inarritu manages to enthrall us with his stories, expertly stitched and seamlessly joined to form one breadth of humanity. Like its title, taken from the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible, this movie is about the failure of communication, the disastrous consequences of misunderstanding, the price to pay for confusion.
Spending time away from home to work on their marriage, Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are travelling through a remote part of north Africa when a bullet hits Susan on the shoulder. Emergency rescue from the US Consulate is hampered by fear that this was a terror attack on an American tourist, as the media goes into speculation. Meanwhile, Susan waits in agony and grave uncertainty.
The ordeal endured by the nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is equally, if not more, harrowing. Unable to arrange for anyone to babysit the two children on the day of her son’s wedding, Amelia brings them along to Tijuana. Everything goes well until Amelia’s nephew, in a fit of intoxicated outburst, defies border patrol and makes themselves immigration outlaws. Amelia and the frightened children are dumped in the desert in the dark.
Away from the desert brown of Morocco and the Mexican border, the city lights and colours of Tokyo paint a silent and piercing story of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Deaf and mute, Chieko experiences a more intense kind of teenage angst. She thinks people look at her as a freak. So starved of physical and emotional connection, Chieko’s frustrations as a social outcast drives her need to be attractive and desired, as she makes brazen attempts to sexualize herself.
The multiple narratives – in different locations, in different languages – share a biding sense of anxiety and urgency. Under a sweeping arc, the stories gradually reveal their connections. The bigger picture of human actions rippling across geography and time is built on the strength of the specificity of moments. Each story depicts a situation where the characters find themselves in such a deep dilemma there is no way they can ever be the same again. Inarritu and co-writer Guillermo Arriaga are careful to show these are not the consequences of any evil actions. There is no bad intention on anybody’s part. Sometimes people are just careless, irrational, dumb and bad luck follows.
The way the stories unfold and cross over has a transfixing effect. The hand-held cinematography, the impatient editing, the intense acting, the frenzied build-up escalate to push the characters towards some inexorable situations. The sense of dread can be too strong at times. We think Susan might bleed to death. We think the kids might fall into a ravine in the dark. We think Chieko might step off the apartment balcony.
All of them are lost, in more ways than one, in some dark, lonely, unreachable place. We hope for a moment of reprieve in the stories so we could avert our eyes. The overlapping, non-chronological fragments of the stories have varying strength; but it is unquestionably their inter-connectedness that gives rise to a sweeping, grand and startling design.