- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

In “Babel,” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu takes us around the world to remind us that we have trouble communicating even with those who speak our own language.

This sprawling human drama is one of the year’s greatest achievements. It seems like Mr. Inarritu and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (they also made “21 Grams” and “Amores Perros”), can get inside the head of just about anyone.

“Babel” is an ensemble film, with four interrelated but distinct stories taking place in three different countries. Every character is so well drawn, and treated with such delicate sympathy, it’s hard to believe their tales are told in just under 2½ hours.

Two stories take place in Morocco. A goat herder gives his two teenage boys a rifle, instructing them to kill coyotes preying on their animals. Sibling rivalry leads to tragedy when, fighting over who’s the better shot, one of them unwittingly shoots an American woman riding through the desert on a tour bus.

That woman is Susan (Cate Blanchett), on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt). The trip seems like a last-ditch effort to resurrect a failing marriage.

Their two children, the all-American blonde Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning, sister to Dakota) are in America under the supervision of their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza). Richard won’t give the nanny the day off for her son’s wedding in Mexico. So she takes the children with her, driven by her hotheaded nephew, Santiago (“The Motorcycle Diaries’ ” Gael Garcia Bernal). When the Mexican adults and Anglo children attempt to cross the border on their return, events spiral out of control.

It’s not clear at first how the final story is connected to these — but it is. It centers on Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf Japanese teenager alienated from her father after the suicide of her mother.

“Babel” jumps back and forth between these four stories, but they’re so compelling, they never lose our interest. Mr. Inarritu has an eye for the little details that make a story real, like the dress that doesn’t quite fit Amelia. His style is restrained, which gives, for example, the scene in which Susan is shot a sense of suspense that never feels over-the-top. “Babel” may seem at first glance like an epic, with its intersecting intercontinental tales, but it’s really an intimate film about relationships writ large.

The larger picture — the political world in which these people find themselves — always serves to frame the smaller one. “My mom told me that Mexico is really dangerous,” little Mike says. “Yeah,” responds Santiago. “It’s full of Mexicans.”

Richard has his own dangerous group to handle — the other tourists. A woman has been shot but humans are a selfish breed. The other bus riders want to abandon the couple in rural Morocco because they’re worried about their own safety. He needn’t worry too much, though. In this film, everything seems to work out for the white people.

Mr. Pitt and Miss Blanchett headline the film, although this is for marketing purposes only in this ensemble film. One person does stand out, though: Miss Kikuchi. The actress was brave in taking on a role that forces her to bare all, physically and emotionally. In her search for someone to understand her lies the heart of the film.

***

TITLE: “Babel”

RATING: R (violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Written by Guillermo Arriaga based on an idea by Mr. Arriaga and Mr. Inarritu.

RUNNING TIME: 142 minutes

WEB SITE: www.paramountvantage.

com/babel

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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