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Thursday, April 19, 2007
Communication is the key that links us all
By KAORI SHOJI
Special to The Japan Times
What surfaces in "Babel" is a feverish, desperate desire for communication. Comprised of four segments spanning three continents in locations as disparate as Morocco and Tokyo, the characters make phone calls, text message, weep, kiss and clutch at each other's arms. The need to reach out is so palpable that it hurts; the main emotion recalled by the film is a great, protracted longing -- for understanding, closeness, that magical moment of actually connecting with someone else. At the same time you realize, too, the difficulty of this undertaking.
"Babel" opens with a scene of a Moroccan father handing a high-powered rifle to his two sons and instructing them to shoot when a jackal comes near their goat herd. He neglects to tell them anything else before going to work, and the boys (aged 11 and 13) take pot-shots at rocks, the sky and then at a tour bus on a mountain road below them. A bullet penetrates one of the windows and the collarbone of American tourist named Susan (Cate Blanchett), who is on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt).
The couple had come to Morocco to mend their faltering marriage, but until this point their relations had consisted of quiet bickering and dense silences. This out-of-the-blue, random wounding, however, spurs the laconic Richard into action. He turns into the archetypal demanding American, barking orders to the Moroccan tour-bus guide and, when they manage to stop at a nearby village, yelling down a bad phone line for "immediate help, now, right NOW!" In the meantime, the Moroccan father learns from his two sons what has happened. His features decompose into a pool of despair and resignation. He knows the authorities will show no mercy -- the only course of action is flight and, taking his sons, he abandons their home.
What makes this double disaster all the more poignant is the involvement of children; Richard and Susan's relationship disintegrated after the death of their baby son, and to make this trip they had left their other two youngsters in the care of Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). As for the Moroccan boys, they had clearly wished for some kind of contact with their dad, apart from orders to carry out their chores; there is a fragment of joy, even of triumph, in their young faces when they confess what they have done. As the story progresses, you see how little families really interact with each other (regardless of nationality or social position) until some decisive incident. After finally carrying Susan to a hospital, Richard calls home and listens to his son recounting his day at school. The guilelessness of the boy's voice sends him into a paroxysm of sobbing. Meanwhile, in the Moroccan mountains, father and sons are shot at by the local police and, flinging everything but paternal love to the winds, the father desperately tries to save his progeny.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores perros," "21 Grams") structures the story in the same way as his other works. We see how seemingly disconnected incidents in haphazard sequence have a way of linking the remotest of people and lives so that, in the end, they form a coherent whole; a shot is fired in Morocco and its consequences reach the U.S. embassy in Casablanca, a house in San Diego, a wedding in Mexico and, in the final segment, a volleyball match in Tokyo. The girl who protests a foul to the umpire in sign language during the game is Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf teen whose mother died just months earlier. Chieko's dad (Koji Yakusho) is a comp- any executive who, like most Japanese dads, was never home, but he's doing his best now to fill the gap -- he shows up at Chieko's tournament and drives her back to town afterward. (Here, too, a rupture in the daily fabric throws a family closer together.) Chieko, however, is prickly and dissatisfied; she pines for communication with her father beyond the banal exchanges of every day ("I won't be home for dinner, heat some food up for yourself"), and this culminates in a search for sexual love with just about any male she comes across, including police detective Kenji (Satoshi Nikaido), who wants to question her father about a rifle he took to Morocco on a hunting expedition.
Chieko seems the most vulnerable of the children featured in the film, even though, being the oldest, she has the most control over her destiny. Offering herself to Kenji boldly and awkwardly, Chieko embodies the desire for love and how, thwarted in this quest, the same desire can turn into great pain and possible destruction.
"Babel," so titled after the biblical story of the tower that divided mankind via different languages, is charged with sorrow and hope; communication often fails (whether sharing the same language or not), which is precisely why we all keep trying. And in the end, we come away convinced of the most basic of truths: Among loved ones, there is no time to waste, no emotion that should be left unexpressed, and no love that can afford to be squandered.
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