Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are on vacation in Morocco to heal the wounds of the death of a child. Two young brothers, trying to hit a target at 3km with the rifle their father bought to kill jackels, shoot at the tour bus and a bullet hits Susan. One of the guides directs the bus to his village where Richard scrambles for help. He calls his home in San Diego to make sure his two older children, under the care of the housekeeper and nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), are all right but they are about to go on their own journey to Mexico. The Moroccan police seek out the shooter by trying to trace the bullet. Richard is sure the U.S. embassy will help but there are difficulties and delays. The police in Tokyo visit the condo of a wealthy businessman and ask his teenaged daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute, to speak with him. Her mother committed suicide and she and her father do not communicate. It turns out that the high-powered rifle can be traced to him.
Babel is a complex puzzle and the events it portrays by its non-linear timeline, seem to take place almost simultaneously, not unlike director Alejando Gonzalez Iñárritu's 21 Grams (2003). He also directed Amores Perros (2001) – a film I have not yet seen (but I have the DVD and it is on my list).
The title “Babel”, of course, refers to the Genesis 11 when people tried to build a tower to the heavens, a sign of hubris that God countered by confusing their languages so the builders could not communicate.
There are so many threads to talk about in this fascinating film: the butterfly effect, family, life and death, guilt, guns, and empathy for starters, but I think communication, as it relates to the film’s title, is the ultimate theme of the movie. What begins as an act of generosity sets off a sequence of events with sad, tragic, and unintentional human consequences. There are breakdowns in communication, and breakthroughs.
The acting is superb as each character plays against another in an intentional pairing and cross-pairings of diverse relationships. Blanchett and Pitt's intense and intimate marital bond is shown to us in intense close-ups when he cares for her while awaiting help. We expect superb acting from Blanchett, but on the other side of the world, Rinko Kikuchi’s performance as the grieving and isolated daughter, living inside her head, breaks our hearts.
Babel is a gritty film that appeals to the intellect, engages the heart, and makes us reflect and perhaps take some kind of action about the centrality of communication (over guns); indeed the film makes us thirst for it for the characters as we experience the film and ponder the future of the human family beyond and within our own borders.
It would be very interesting to see Babel and the 2002 Chinese film Hero that looked at communication and the sword in an intensely beautiful and truthful way. The theme of the rifle in Babel may seem sub-textual, but as pivotal as the rock in the old "Rock Soup" tale, it has the subtle power to make us reflect about arms and what happens when they fall into the hands of even the innocent.