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Babel isn't the kind of movie with a high replay value, as its 142-minute running time alone makes for an antsy affair. But the film's power is such that you won't soon need to revisit it to remember its message(s).


If time permitted, Babel would've had seven stories come together--one for each continent. As it stands, the film is set in three continents, which is more than enough to convey the world's vast discord and, ultimately, harmony. The first--and integral--story is set in the Moroccan desert, where a powerful rifle changes ownership a number of times until winding up in the hands of two young brothers, whose father instructs them use it on jackals. The curious boys fire at a tour bus in the distance to see if the bullets can really go as far as they're supposed to. The bullet not only penetrates the bus window but also the woman leaning on it, an American woman named Susan (Cate Blanchett) on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt). In San Diego, the couple's housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) is watching their two kids, but she, along with her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal), is forced to bring them to Mexico for her son's marriage when she's unable to find a sitter for the night. Finally, in Tokyo, a young deaf-mute girl (Rinko Kikuchi) struggles to come to grips with her mother's recent suicide and the lack of attention she is paid by people, namely the opposite sex. The stories intertwine, but the precise ties that bind them are much better seen than read.


Some people might take issue with the world's biggest movie star headlining a movie otherwise bereft of commercial appeal. The flipside of the argument is that Pitt's attachment gets such a movie greenlit with the snap of a finger, and let's face it--he's not doing Babel for the money, so why even star-hate? Especially since he gives one of his best, if briefer, performances. He looks sleep-deprived, disheveled and somewhat alien to tabloid junkies, and his emotions are likewise running on empty throughout. Without giving too much away, Oscar buzz for Blanchett's performance seems unfeasible, but not for lack of quality. Nonetheless, she dons a convincing American accent and shares great spousal interplay with Pitt, when she's not writhing in pain. Barraza's (Amores Perros) roller coaster of emotions is matched, and somewhat abetted, by Bernal in a limited role. But the film's relative unknowns are responsible for the most arresting performances. Kikuchi, aided by some brilliant work from the director, is especially tough to swallow at times, as her incarnation of the "tortured adolescent" is, it's safe to say, foreign to most who'll see the movie.


Babel's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga are a rare breed in Hollywood: They try to affect audiences before entertaining them. In Babel, you can see how writer Arriaga fell victim to his (or more likely financiers') desire to entertain moviegoers, but you must overlook the few minor flaws--in the form of adulterated coincidences and perhaps exploitative scenes--for the end reward. Out of Arriaga's otherwise incredible and ambitious script, director Inarritu pieces together the puzzle in a way that is wholly powerful and gut-wrenching--and also non-sequential, as per his signature style. Abrupt cuts between the narratives are effective in interweaving the stories, and the director handles with special care the Japanese story line, taking us deep inside the young girl's vivid yet incomplete world. Inarritu and Arriaga, who previously worked together on Amores Perros and 21 Grams, complement each other in such a way that makes a more formidable team in today's movies impossible to think of. The film would not be the same without breathtaking visuals and a score that subtly haunts from Brokeback Mountain's Rodrigo Prieto and Gustavo Santaolalla, respectively.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.