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Dazed and confused in no man’s land

In ‘Babel,’ Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett lead a mondo brigade of actors without borders

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 13 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Dazed and confused in no man’s land

In ‘Babel,’ Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett lead a mondo brigade of actors without borders

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 13 2006

Dazed and confused in no man’s land

THE BACK PAGES

film

In ‘Babel,’ Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett lead a mondo brigade of actors without borders

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Some people will think of it as the new Brad Pitt movie, the first he’s appeared in since play-acting that slapstick spy-vs.-spy breakup with Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs Smith. Others may think of it as the new Alejandro González Iñárritu film, the final mosaic in a trilogy by the Mexican director that includes Amores Perros and 21 Grams. However you look at it, Babel rocks the Zeitgeist with uncanny prescience and urgency.

This drama of dislocated lives—four interlocking stories of parents, children and the borders that divide them—was shot on three continents. When Iñárritu was filming it, he had no way of knowing how timely it would be. Last year, when shooting with Pitt in a Moroccan village on the edge of the Sahara Desert, he could not have known that Pitt and Jolie would become parents of an Ethiopian orphan named Zahara, then turn a small African country into their maternity ward; or that, on the eve of Babel’s release, Madonna would stir up global controversy by using her wealth and influence to adopt a Malawian child.

The Madonna melodrama would be quite at home in Babel, a movie about children severed from their parents by borders of one kind or another. Iñárritu’s film reimagines the global village as the Tower of Babel, with families fractured along fault lines of escalating incomprehension. It’s neither a Hollywood movie nor a foreign film. Shot in four languages, it’s a mongrel work of virtuosic moviemaking that throws one of the biggest stars on the planet into scenes with non-professional actors—Saharan villagers—who have never heard of him.

Pitt’s storyline is just one piece of the nar-

rative puzzle. He and Cate Blanchett play Richard and Susan, an American couple who are taking a half-hearted vacation in Morocco while still devastated by the loss of a child. They’re riding a tour bus through the desert when, out of the blue, a gunshot shatters the window and strikes Susan in the neck, leaving her critically injured. The bullet was fired by a Muslim boy fooling with an old rifle on a hilltop. But as a report of the shooting ricochets through the media, there are rumours of terrorism. Meanwhile, Susan clings to life as the couple is stranded in a remote village with a busload of impatient tourists. Two cultures lie dangerously intertwined, like electrical wires with their insulation stripped.

Another storyline revolves around a Mexican nanny, an illegal immigrant employed by a wealthy California family. Desperate to attend her son’s wedding, she takes the two children in her charge across the border into Mexico without their parents’ permission. These wide-eyed kids are uprooted from their cushy suburb and plunged into rough-andtumble Tijuana. And as the nanny’s drunken brother (Gael Garcia Bernal) drives them back across the border, taking a wild detour into the desert, we know that this well-intentioned field trip will not end well.

Babel’s third narrative takes place in a desert of a different colour, the urban maze of Tokyo.

The story concerns a deaf-mute teenage rebel who courts erotic mischief and torments her remote father (Kôji Yasujiro) with anger and grief over her mother’s death. In a script that’s daisy-chained with serendipitous links, the Tokyo piece is the most tangential element. There’s an obvious logic to having a deafmute in a movie about raging incomprehension. But the director’s taste for mondo exoticism seems gratuitous in this portrait of a cute Japanese schoolgirl trying to break her silence with acts of sexual bravado.

Yet Iñárritu stages melodrama with such immaculate realism that you don’t stop to question its authenticity. Babel represents a landmark of sorts, bridging Hollywood diversion with art-house diversity. Although the action unfolds in four countries, it’s rooted in none of them. All the characters fall out of bounds and become marooned on a borderline where nothing is sacred and no one is safe. Pitt, his hair grey with middle-aged angst, is just another helpless American in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the protagonist is fate, heroism is useless.

Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who also wrote Amores Perros and 21 Grams, has perfected the looping, multi-track drama. And with movies like Traffic, Syriana and Crash, it has become a mainstream genre. These films inhabit a world where connections, not characters, are larger than life—a no-man’s land where we’re all accidental tourists, and hope is the ultimate contraband. M