Half of the critics here say that, on its seventh day, Cannes finally found a film worthy of the Palme d'Or. The other half were less impressed. Maybe it's a boy-girl thing. Which is why we offer a he-said-she-said appraisal of this important and contentious movie, between two film folks who have been in Cannes, loving movies and arguing about them, for 33 years.
Mary Corliss: In Babel, as with Amores Perros and 21 Grams, the theme is rooted in chaos theory. The idea is that a seemingly insignificant event anywhere in the world (the flapping of a butterfly's wings, in the famous example) can have cataclysmic consequences (a tidal wave or hurricane).
The event here is a simple act of generosity: a Japanese man (Kôji Yakusho), on a hunt in Morocco, gives his local guide his Winchester rifle as a present. The guide sells the gun to a goatherd, who entrusts it to his two pre-teen sons to keep jackals away from the herd. The younger son, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), a better shot with a more reckless disposition, tests the rifle's shooting distance by taking thoughtless aim at a bus on the road below their mountain redoubt. He fires, critically wounding one of the tourists inside. She is Susan (Cate Blanchett), on a marriage-saving vacation with her husband Richard (Pitt). Because the couple cannot be at home in San Diego with their two young children, the kids' nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) takes them to her home village in Mexico for her son's wedding. Their driver is her nephew, Santiago (Gabriel García Bernal), a punk with a gun.
Three innocent actions a gift, a restorative vacation, a trip to a wedding turn dreadfully wrong, not because of the venality of the people who put them in motion but because of the caprices of destiny. The film makes two unarguable points: that, wherever we live, whatever our status, all of us on earth are interdependent; and that, whatever care we take to control things, our lives are ruled by chance.
Richard Corliss: That's a fascinating premise for a good movie. And in Amores Perros the director and the writer found a suitable chain of stories to flesh out the premise. But if it doesn't work, all you're left with is a pile-up of implausible coincidences. In a word: Crash.
M.C.: But Babel doesn't get its strength from the coincidences. It gets it from characters whose strength of will and heart is put to the test when bad things happen to them. In that sense, the Biblical reference in the movie is not so much to the Tower of Babel, where man's ambition was confounded by an angry God, throwing humanity into a babble of different languages and customs. It's more like the story of Job, who has to keep fighting and trusting as the calamities accumulate. Can't you accept that a movie can work as a parable, not just as a slice of realistic life?
R.C.: I'm a big fan of parables. But they have to make more than metaphorical sense. My question for a movie like Babel is always: What are the odds? In this case, I can only surmise that the Pitt character, who might lose his wife and his children within 24 hours, is not a representative of modern man. He's just the unluckiest guy in the world.
M.C.: Anyone, in any 24-hour period, can be the unluckiest guy in the world. Especially in drama. That's what drama is: the compressing of a life into a few hours, the exposure of character through action, the revelation of a person's essence by the way he acts in a crisis. You get revelations of Pitt's character when his wife is shot: his anger, frustration and resolve, as well as his love for her and desperate terror that he might lose her. And Pitt isn't the only one whose character is revealed in extreme moments. The Moroccan boys playing with the dangerous new toy are expressing the rivalry any two brothers might have. Here it's between the older, ordinary brother and the younger, more daring one. The contest between the boys is halted when Yussef realizes that his rifle shot has unintentionally hit the bus. Suddenly Yussef is a panicked little boy, frightened of what will happen when his father hears about this incident.
R.C.: I guess that's the movie's big theme: guns kill people. Guns are bad.
M.C.: I believe that. But the movie isn't as simple as you make it out to be. It's also a tremendously pertinent essay on international politics. You have the illegal alien, Amelia, who can't protect herself or her charges though she has the best intentions in the world. Then there's Richard, the American in an Arab land, who can't be immediately helped by his government because the shooting is suspected to be a terrorist act. But the film is mainly, I think, about children. They are the most vulnerable of humans, the most likely to be put at risk by the people in charge of them. The Moroccan boys wouldn't have got into trouble if their father hadn't given them a rifle. Pitt and Blanchett's two children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), wouldn't be in jeopardy if they hadn't been carted off to Mexico. And the Japanese man's daughter Chieko...
R.C.: Ah, we finally come to Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), the deaf-mute teenager who is deeply, if photogenically, neurotic.
M.C.: If she's neurotic, it's because she has lost her mother to suicide and is cocooned in her world of silence at the moment when her budding sexuality is crying out to be satisfied.
R.C.: Right. What's that got to do with chaos theory?
M.C.: The movie isn't a dry statement of propositions. It's an investigation of complex, flawed, sharply drawn characters. I love the scenes with Chieko: her scenes at the disco, so vital and noisy on the outside, so spookily quiet and eerily illuminated when we are inside Chieko's head. The girl wants someone, anyone, to penetrate the darkness of her silence. Because she can't flirt verbally with men, she reveals herself in the boldest way possible: by her nakedness. It is the oinly way to express what she can offer of herself and, at the same time, revealing her vulnerability.
R.C.: So all the children are victims, eh?
M.C.: Nothing's that simple, in life, or certainly in this movie. We're all victims, at times, and victimizers at other times. Yussef is an agent, an angel, of death. He's also a very charming, then very scared kid. Debbie and Mike, I suppose, are clearly victims, but the two child actors, especially Nathan Gamble, play fear beautifully. Chieko is a scarred creature, who can communicate only through extreme measures, and suffers the memory of finding her dead mother (a suicide victim who shot herself--another gun!). The children in Babel are complicated human beings, just like the adults. And they are certainly crucial to Iñárritu. He dedicates the film "To my sons, the brightest lights in the darkest night." For all the trouble they endure, all the trouble they cause, they have to be the hope of our future. They are our future. You'll grant me that, won't you?
R.C.: I'll grant that the movie is a display of wonderful actors. Pitt is the most compelling he's been in ages, and his scenes with Blanchett have a nice tenderness, edge and desperation. And the kids are great. I felt for them. But my overriding feeling during the movie was one of exasperation.
M.C.: Cut Babel a break. You might add that it's beautifully made. Whether you agree with the story, you have to admit that Iñárritu is a master director.
R.C.: Maybe later. Besides, you got to make most of the points. And you've done most of the talking.
M.C.: That only happens when I'm right.