When approaching a new film by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga - the Powell-Pressburger of the cut-up timeline - one knows one is going to be presented with a puzzle, a Rubik's Cube of narrative that will, hopefully, become re-aligned in the mind by the time the credits roll. Their last joint venture, 21 Grams, had the brain reeling in its attempts to impose continuity on a series of wild forward and backward flashes across three separate strands, leaving us to wonder what drugs they must have been on in the editing suite. So, perhaps in recognition that 21 Grams was a step too far in scrambling a film, Babel is much more restrained in that area, and thereby eloquently proves that less really is more.
Babel forms the final unit in a trilogy, along with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. These earlier films explore the knock-on consequences of two respective car accidents across multiple strands, and Babel does a similar thing, but with larger scope and ambition. Making use of the classic butterfly effect premise, it shows how the ripples outwards from a single, fairly insignificant act devastate the lives of several families, in events spreading out across America, Mexico, North Africa and Japan.
In the mountains of Morocco, Abdullah, a poor goat herder, purchases a rifle in order to kill the jackals that attack his animals. The high-powered weapon causes glee amongst his young sons, Yussef and Ahmed, who compete to determine who is the best shot. But the rivalry between the boys sometimes spills over into bitterness, and their careless handling of the rifle, which to them is little more than a toy, doesn't bode well.
Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican nanny working in San Diego, finds that due to a problem, her duties in a caring for her employer's children clash with her son's wedding over the border. So she takes the kids with her into Mexico, but on the trip back, in the company of her itinerant nephew, Santiago (Gael García Bernal), events spin out of control, threatening everything she holds dear.
American couple Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are holidaying in a remote desert region when they are subjected to a supposed terrorist attack. Susan is seriously injured, but being marooned in a small village, they cannot get the medical help she badly needs. Richard becomes engaged in a life or death struggle to save his wife, involving kindnesses from the locals and hostility from his fellow travellers.
Deaf-mute Tokyo teenager Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is suffering from alienation. She is at odds with her father, and her disability is proving a barrier to her gaining a boyfriend at a time when her hormones are bubbling over. To get attention, she becomes provocative, resulting in a scene that is destined to be heavily freeze-framed when the DVD comes out. After further rejection, her rampant sexuality emerges again, compromising herself and others.
These four stories are intercut to form a ravishing global whirl that compares dusty yellow African panoramas with the redder dust of Mexico, and sets the kaleidoscopic dazzle of nighttime Tokyo against the atavistic dryness of Casablanca. Each story grips in its own way, with well-measured direction and perfect-pitch acting. A surprisingly aged Brad Pitt gives his best performance in years, convincingly riding a wide gamut of emotions, and Cate Blanchett brings great care to the portrayal of traumatised, microphobic Susan. There are marvellous amateur performances in the Moroccan strand, especially that of Boubker Ait El Caid as Yussef, a boy cursed by his intuitive talent. But the film is stolen by Rinko Kikuchi, who provides the most arresting display of Japanese pubescent acting since Chiaki Kuriyama in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, though unsurprisingly she is much older than her character.
How the separate stories connect to one another is, of course, the fun of the puzzle, and Iñárritu and Arriaga handle it with the most superb subtlety. There is only minimal slipping and sliding in time, and quickly glimpsed TV news reports, an international phonecall and showings of photographs act as wormholes, binding the strands together in startling ways. Babel's sense of a global Breughel composition makes the point that the world has become, if not smaller, then far more complexly interlaced than it ever was before. As the title's premise suggests, everyone speaks their own language, and so large parts of the film are subtitled, though interestingly it impacts very little on the viewing experience.
There are natural parallels with Amores Perros and 21 Grams, and also with the Arriaga-scripted The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - in some ways Babel can be seen as an expansion of that film's cautionary message about firearms. Examining these works together tends to highlight the significance of Arriaga in the authorial process, and hereby lies a controversy. Unlike Powell and Pressburger, who as director and writer always took joint credit for both roles, and therefore democratised authorship, Iñárritu and Arriaga have had a public row over this very issue, with Iñárritu claiming all the credit as auteur, and actually banning Arriaga from attending the Cannes screening of the film because of the dispute.
All this is strangely at odds with the sense of closure and harmony that arrives as Babel - and indeed the entire trilogy - nears its conclusion. Ultimately the film's humanism has a levelling effect, showing that the privileged and the underprivileged, from whatever race, are the same when it comes to pain, and that any life can unravel in the face of misfortune. On top of its ambitious tricksiness, Babel still manages to pack in two killer twists, and by the time we get to the serene end tracking shot, that sense of a Rubik's Cube with all its faces restored arrives without strain.