Babel brings interesting end to triology
December 18, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoWith “Babel,” the Mexican team of director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga have reportedly completed a trilogy of films that began with 2000’s “Amores Perros” and continued with 2003’s “21 Grams.” Let us hope those reports are accurate, and that the trilogy is now complete.Which is not to say I wish these two quit making films. Far from it. “Amores Perros,” in Spanish and set in Mexico City, is among the most stimulating, unforgettable films from any country or any era. “21 Grams,” which moved north of the border, was no disappointment as a follow-up. The two films together laid out Iñárritu and Arriaga’s knack for telling stories of grief and violence with a measure of taste and heart-thumping emotion. The two films also shared the structure of using tragic coincidence to knit together multiple narratives; in their finest moments, those intertwined threads created a texture that would have been impossible in one story line.
For good and ill, “Babel” is cut from the same mold, this time on a global scale. There are four stories: a couple suffering in Morocco; their kids in peril on a trip from San Diego to Mexico; two kids unintentionally touching off an international incident; a deaf girl on a dangerous sexual journey in Japan. Iñárritu and Arriaga clearly have not run out of ways to put characters in tragedy’s way or to make audiences squirm; “Babel” contains some of the most wrenching scenarios imaginable. Iñárritu still has the ability to wring emotion from his actors; Brad Pitt, Rinko Kikuchi and Adrianna Barraza all garnered nominations for Golden Globe awards for their supporting roles. (Both director and screenwriter, and the film itself, were likewise nominated.)But for those who have seen the pair’s previous films, “Babel” begins to feel like a formula, in a way “Amores Perros” could never have seemed. (This is especially so in the wake of last year’s best picture Oscar winner, “Crash,” which explored similar themes with a similar structure and a similar intensity.) “Babel,” in fact, aims for a more unified theme than “Amores Perros” or “21 Grams.” The title refers to the biblical tower that was meant to reach heaven; God prevented its construction by plaguing the builders with a multitude of languages, so they couldn’t communicate. In “Babel,” police and criminals, American border patrols and Mexican immigrants, fathers and daughters, all fail to connect through differences of culture or language. This failure to communicate is at the root of the turmoil, or magnifies what might have been smaller disasters.The individual tales of “Babel” are effective enough. The Tokyo story, connected to the others by the barest whisker, is odd and powerful, with Iñárritu’s strength as a visual artist on display. But the Tower of Babel theme is by now like child’s play in these hands, and the whole is only slightly more than the sum of its very substantial parts.
Interestingly, the trilogy may be at its end, and not because they have hit the magic number three. Rather, the director-screenwriter friendship seems to have come to an end, when Iñárritu made indelicate comments about the supremacy of directing, a view to which Arriaga too exception. I’m looking forward to how the breakdown of the partnership frees the two to search out new ideas.Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series continues with daily screenings (except Sunday, Dec. 24) through Jan. 1. For complete program details, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org