Mexico/USA (2006) Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Having scored big with his triptych film Amores Perros and it’s follow up 21 Grams, Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu completes his “Death Trilogy” with this portmanteau film that spans the globe with its intertwined anthology of agony.
We open in Morocco where a goat herder named Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) buys a high-powered rifle and ammunition from his neighbour Hassan Ibrahim (Abdelkader Bara) to shoot the jackals that have been preying on his goats. Abdullah leaves the rifle with his two young sons, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchini), to watch out for any jackals, but boredom sets in so they practice shooting at a passing bus in the road below, which they thought was too far away.
Yussef’s shot hits the bus, striking American tourist Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett). Her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) struggles to get help as they are too far from a hospital and have to make do at the home of the bus driver (Omar El Mallouli) while waiting for the US Embassy to help. Unfortunately the media believe this was a terrorist attack and the high alert impedes the actions of the embassy to get help to Susan.
Meanwhile back in the US, it is the wedding of the son of Amelia (Adriana Barraza), the Mexican nanny to the Jones family, but Richard orders her to stay put with their children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble). Unable to find someone to look after the kids, Amelia is forced to take them with her to Mexico for the wedding. Driven by Amelia’s nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal), everything is fine until they are stopped by US border police on the way back home to San Francisco. Feeling persecuted Santiago drives away then abandons Amelia and the kids in the desert before fleeing.
The final arc is set in Japan where deaf teenager Cheiko Wataya (Rinko Kikuchi) who is struggling to come to terms with the suicide of her mother, taking her frustrations out on everyone, including her father Yasujiro (Kōji Yakusho). Cheiko is also sexually frustrated as the other girls around her age have boyfriends and she doesn’t. Whenever she tries to attract boys they run a mile upon learning she is deaf. Two policemen arrive at the complex where the Watayas live, looking to talk to Yasujiro but only Cheiko is around. Finding the younger officer Detective Kenji Mamiya (Satoshi Nikaido) attractive, Cheiko decides to try and seduce him.
So we have three disparate stories, two of which have an established connection while the third remains independent, appearing to remain the odd one out, but Iñárritu brings it together with the others in a subtle, underplayed manner while possessing arguably the most devastatingly tragic impact of the three tales.
As much as the intricacy of the way the plots are intertwined with one another is to be applauded, the actual presentation is likely to prove frustrating, although one is soon forced to get used to it. As one story starts to get interesting or hits an emotional crescendo, we are literally dragged away into one of the other plots instead. If anything though, it guarantees that the audience will stay put as they await for which ever segment they prefer to continue, so kudos again for such brave but sneaky tactics.
Even if one is likely to hold this against Iñárritu, it does prove that conventional linear narratives don’t always have to be the format of choice, nor does it detract from the power and resonance of those individual stories or the film as a whole. I can only imagine however, how hard it must be to decide at which point one segment of one story ends and another is chosen to follow it. We can only assume that by the time the end credits arrive, Iñárritu made the right decision to choose the fractured running order that he did, because somehow one can’t imagine it playing out in any other way.
Also the choice to break up the stories into bite sized chunks allows for the passages of time to take effect without the need of detailing every quotidian moment, sparing us all from having to sit through unnecessary filler and delivering only the meaty bits of the three plots.
Each of the three tales shows Iñárritu having to apply a different approach to each one in terms of casting, which is reflected in the verisimilitude of the three settings. For example, in the Moroccan arc, most of the cast, including the two boys, are not trained or professional actors, a tact that many filmmakers from Africa, the Middle East and even in the Eastern Bloc employ.
Conversely, playing the two American tourists you have tow big Hollywood names in Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. To be honest, as good as they both are here, anyone could have played these roles but the paranoia of Tinsel Town producers and their “profit over art” maxim would have killed this film dead in its tracks for a US release without some familiar names in it.
Straddling both facets is Gael García Bernal, who heads the cast in the Mexican thread, being the most well known internationally of the bunch, while in Japan Rinko Kikuchi, as the deaf and emotionally fraught Cheiko, was already a noted TV and film actress, since becoming the go to Asian actress in Hollywood too. She also became the first Japanese actress to be nominated for an Oscar for her impressive turn.
Being the third time round for the omnibus format may make Alejandro González Iñárritu seem like a one trick pony but he deserves plaudits for pulling it off so well for a third time. Babel might be the strongest entry of the trio and should appeal to an audience beyond the niche “arthouse crowd”.
Simply put, if you enjoy a challenge, this superbly constructed film that deconstructs standard film narratives to great effect, is for you.