Our era of cell phones, Internet links and globe-spanning travel ought to knock down barriers and bring us closer. Not so, argues Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in his rich, complex international tragedy "Babel," which tells four heart-rending stories across four countries, in five principal languages.
At the core of each tale is an elemental idea, a family struggling to survive against forces — personal, natural, legal, political — conspiring to pull them apart. Even when we speak the same language, Inarritu implies, communication is superficial, mutual comprehension is rare. When true empathy arrives, it is as miraculous as an oasis in a trackless wasteland.
American tourists Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett) are traveling in North Africa. They are not on a carefree holiday but on a last-ditch mission to reconnect after a heartbreak that has shattered their marriage.
Watching over Richard and Susan's children in San Diego is their devoted nanny, Amelia (Adrianna Barraza). As she prepares to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, she gets an urgent call from Richard. There has been a terrible accident; he and Susan will be delayed, and Amelia must look after the children until other arrangements can be made. The servant impulsively decides to take the children across the border for the marriage feast, with assurances from her cocky nephew, Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal), that they will never be caught as illegal immigrants.
Pitt and Blanchett are exemplary as the disillusioned Californians. The film's look is distinctive, too, with Africa rendered in washed-out shades of stone, Mexico in irradiated yellows and reds, and Japan in cool strokes of black, white and blue.
As in Inarritu's earlier triumphs "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," "Babel" abounds with puzzling moments, shifts in the time frame and mysteries that fall into place as the broad, poetic tale unfolds. In his world, an act of pure charity can beget consequences that imperil innocent lives, while the tenderness of strangers may be our only shield against imminent death.
The director interweaves his stories like a symphonic composer, teasing out suspense here, adding foreboding there, bringing in a surge of crushing pathos but then providing a blessed note of hope and reconciliation. It pulls off the feat of being at once subtle and clear as day.