Remember the butterfly effect, the theory that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in one part of the globe can lead, through a chain reaction of events, to a tidal wave in another part of the globe? Well, Mexican director Alejandro GonzÃlez IÃÃrritu gets a lot of mileage out of that idea in Babel, his globetrotting follow-up to Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Once again, IÃÃrritu takes three interrelated stories and shuffles them, like a deck of cards after a hand of poker. The difference is that, with IÃÃrritu and scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga's approach, nothing is left to chance. Denied a strong sense of cause and effect, we nevertheless feel a sense of fatalistic dread creeping over the screen. Nobody's to blame, but there's plenty of blame to go around.
I suppose we could blame God. The movie's Bible-derived title refers to the tower that the good citizens of ancient Babylon tried to build in order to reach heaven on their own. God didn't like the idea and caused them to speak in different languages, so that their grandiose plans would be forever lost in translation. And Babel picks up on that notion, suggests that there are unbridgeable gaps among the various peoples of the world, although we are also intimately connected. That's the tragic aspect of life in the 21st century, globalism and its discontents. When a shepherd boy in a remote corner of Morocco fires a rifle, the effects can be felt as far away as Mexico, not to mention Japan. But we're incapable of making those connections. Our tongues are tied.
A fine theme, as far as themes go, but it wouldn't amount to much if the movie didn't flesh it out with living, breathing human beings. We open in Morocco, where a pair of young brothers have been issued a rifle to ward off the jackals that prey on the family's goat herd. The rifle, it turns out, was a gift from a Japanese businessman, who left it for his hunting guide. But the younger brother, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), has just used it to take a pot shot at a passing tour bus, and the bullet pierced the clavicle of Susan (Cate Blanchett), a San Diego wife and mother who's visiting Morocco with her estranged husband, Richard (a very weathered Brad Pitt).
Meanwhile, back in the States, their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), has decided that, because Richard and Susan won't be back in time, she'll just take their two children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) with her to her son's wedding in Tijuana ' a bad idea. And over in Japan, the deaf-mute daughter of that Japanese businessman, a morosely horny teenager named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), is making inappropriate advances to everybody from her dentist to the handsome policeman sent to inquire about that rifle. It seems that Chieko's mother recently committed suicide, and the combination of grief, isolation and bubbling hormones has rendered her slightly insane. In each of our stories, youngsters play the role of more or less innocent bystanders, nudged toward disaster by the fickle finger of fate.
The thing is, the adults play the same role, and that may be a flaw of the movie, a crack in IÃÃrritu's cosmic egg. For if everyone's a victim of circumstances, nobody's a victimizer, which removes any moral dimension the movie might have had. The American couple aren't the most gracious contingent we've ever sent to the Third World, but they hardly deserve what happens to them. Likewise, the Moroccan boys are a little reckless, but boys will be boys, usually without causing an international incident. Can we pin the tidal wave on the butterfly? Of course not, and that leaves us with a world that's largely out of our control, which is the basis for comedy more than tragedy. Boiled down to its essence, the message of Babel seems to be that, well, shit happens.
But it isn't clear, from the movie, what that has to do with our failure to communicate. And it isn't clear, from the movie, what the Japanese storyline is even doing there, its only link that telltale rifle. In Amores Perros and 21 Grams, it took half the movie for us to figure out what was going on, but once we did, the pieces snapped into place. Babel is much easier to figure out, but the pieces don't link up as well, and that's a pity, because the pieces themselves are intriguing enough to justify movies of their own. IÃÃrritu knows how to give a movie that lived-in feeling, the sweaty stench of reality. But he may be too ambitious. He wants the world and the grain of sand when he should perhaps be looking for the one in the other.