Watching director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's searingly brilliant Babel, I could not help but think of America's distressing folly in Iraq. Madmen attacked innocent citizens in our country on Sept. 11, 2001, and we responded by invading a tormented place unrelated to the attacks. We lost 3,000 souls on 9/11, and the numbers who have paid for that unspeakable sin are staggering. The Bush administration admits to 30,000. Estimates run as high as 600,000. A consensus would say 150,000 have died. The president thought we would be greeted as heroes and would not listen to experts who warned of civil war. To this day, Sunnis and Shiites cannot hear the appeals of the other. In the white noise of ingrained prejudice, chaos reigns. Babel speaks to the huge issues of nations at arms, but it does so by narrowing its focus to the individual, the local and the tragic.
Following the strategy of their earlier Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Inarritu and Arriaga build one theme out of four separate but causally connected stories spread across three continents. In San Diego, Mexican-American nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) receives a phone call from her employer telling her that he and his wife will not be returning home as scheduled. Unfortunately, Amelia's son is getting married in Mexico, and when she can't find an alternate caretaker for her young wards Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), she takes them with her. Amelia's boss is Richard Jones (Brad Pitt) who is on vacation in the Moroccan dessert when a bullet slams through a bus window and into the shoulder of his wife Susan (Cate Blanchett), who is left in danger of bleeding to death.
The bullet is fired by 12-year-old goat-herder Yussef (Boubker Ait El Ciad) whose action is infuriatingly irresponsible but not intentionally malicious. In the confusion that follows, the shooting is treated as an act of terrorism and generates worldwide headlines. Yussef's father Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) purchased the rifle from their neighbor Hassan (Abdelkader Bara) for the purpose of shooting jackals that have been slaughtering the family's goats. Hassan works as a guide and was given the rifle by Japanese businessman Yasujiro Watanya (Koji Yakusho) after a hunting expedition. Yasujiro's wife recently committed suicide, and he has perhaps been less attentive than he should to his daughter Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Chieko is a boy-crazy teen like girls her age across the globe, normal in every way except that she's deaf. She can't hear anybody, metaphorically not even her father who loves her, and few people can "hear" the things her flying fingers need to say.
These four stories are intercut and told to us out of chronological order. That sounds complicated, and it is, but once we settle into the film's rhythms, we are never lost. Throughout, Inarritu and Arriaga purposely manipulate our sympathies by changing our point of view. When Richard calls Amelia, we don't know what he's going through, and we think his demand to postpone her son's wedding is outrageous. Richard's agitation is considerably more understandable when we see the contextual circumstances of his phone call. When we watch Hassan and Abdullah negotiate a price for Yasujiro's rifle, we assume the two Moroccans are terrorists. But later, when we understand they are just poor family men trying to survive in a harsh environment, we watch in horror as they are brutalized as terrorists by Moroccan police.
The film never asks us to regard Amelia as anything but a decent and caring woman. But we don't have to set aside any disbelief when she's first roughly interrogated by police as she tries to cross the border with two blond children and later treated as an illegal alien when she lacks proper documentation. We are mostly sympathetic to Richard, but we cringe when he rages at Moroccan officials who prove powerless to help him and Susan, and we feel particularly sorrowful that in his frustration he lashes out at Anwar (Mohamed Akhzam), the tour guide who takes Susan into his own home and shows the Joneses nothing but kindness. In the moment that Richard turns his wrath on Anwar, he sees the guide not as an individual, but only as someone, perhaps something other, not a human with whom Richard has so much in common and should find so much to appreciate, but an embodiment of them, the them who aren't helping him save his wife. Critically, Richard's behavior is structured in such a way that it's completely understandable. And that doesn't make it any less wrong.
The most difficult part of this film to integrate with the rest is Chieko's crudely clumsy and desperate attempt for acceptance as she inappropriately throws herself sexually at a series of males. In any traditional sense, Chieko's story, powerful as it is, doesn't belong with the rest of the film's narrative. Babel though, is a film about "hearing" across the vastness of cultural divide, about recognizing common humanity. Most of the characters are caught in the crossfire of culture clash. Chieko, because of her deafness and speech impairment, is an alien in her own culture.
There is so very much to admire in Babel, including its moving performances and its dazzling cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. The aspect of the film that I will recall longest, however, is a heart so vast it transcends politics. In the hands of others, Richard and Susan Jones could have been turned into villains, for they certainly benefit from greater resources than anyone else. But here we see things from their side, too. We ache for their pain as for Amelia's or Abdullah's or Chieko's. In Babel, all need to hear, and all need to be heard.