ANDREW CLARKE How the lack of communication or miscommunication can not only drive wedges between otherwise good people and invite the sort of trouble which can destroy lives.
Babel is a compelling watch, but it is not for the emotionally fragile. At times it is hard to watch as bad luck, circumstance and not simply not understanding what is happening combine to visit tragedy and disaster upon four groups of people which, as the film moves on, you realise are actually subtly linked.
It's a movie about how the lack of communication or miscommunication can not only drive wedges between otherwise good people and invite the sort of trouble which can destroy lives.
The film opens with a Moroccan tribesman walking across a bleak and dusty landscape. It turns out he is bringing a hunting rifle to a neighbour. Immediately you think the man buying the rifle is a terrorist - but no, director Alejandro Inarritu is playing with our expected reactions - the rifle is to be used to protect that man's goat herd from marauding jackals.
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The farmer gives the gun to his two young sons before he journeys to the nearby town to go to market. Once alone on the mountainside the boys engage on a little target practice with their new gun. As a result of a dare the youngest boy takes a pot shot at a coach winding its way through the valley below.
Inside the coach are emotionally-repressed tourists Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett). It is clear that all is not well in their relationship, but petty arguments disappear as Cate is hit by the young boy's bullet.
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Miles from the nearest hospital they are taken to a nearby village for treatment by the local vet while the bus drives off leaving them stranded.
Back home their Mexican housekeeper needs to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, but cannot find a trustworthy babysitter to look after them for a day. She decides to take them with her and after a successful wedding they are heading home when an over-zealous US border patrol guard refuses them entry back into the United States because the children are obviously not hers.
Across the other side of the planet in Japan a teenage deaf girl is encountering problems growing up in a world filled with sound. Here communication breakdown is almost absolute emotionally and physically.
Yet with all this tragedy and disaster haunting so many people's lives there are some wonderfully touching moments, fleeting encounters which offer hope in the face of despair. These are the sequences that buoy up the film and offer audiences the emotional fuel to sustain what could have been a thoroughly draining experience.
Instead, what we are treated to is a rewarding look into a number of lives which could, through fate or circumstance, be our own. None of the characters is evil or out to do wrong, but lack of meaningful dialogue between them and their nearest and dearest can cause disaster.
Visually, the film - winning Best Picture at the recent Golden Globe awards - is splendid and Inarritu brings a real sense of place to each location in the film. This lends the film some visual punctuation which helps break up the at time convoluted narrative into easily identifiable sections.
Also it's great to see Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as members of an ensemble cast - playing fairly low-key roles - and turning in two carefully-constructed performances.
It's a thought-provoking and compelling viewing, but not a film for a relaxing night out.