2006 / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actress

Film #416: Babel (2006)

It’s fair to say that when he first appeared on the scene Brad Pitt was considered somewhat of a heartthrob. In an interview he once conducted, he claimed that it was hard for him to get serious roles due to the way he looked. But, as his career progressed, he appeared in a number of diverse films that demonstrated his considerable acting talent. By the end of the noughties; the Academy started to recognise Brad’s efforts as two of the films he starred in were nominated for Best Picture. However, I would contend that neither film saw Brad at his best and in fact I found him rather unlikeable in the first part of this double bill.

Brad and his on-screen wife Cate Blanchett were certainly the most recognisable faces in Babel, which consisted of a cast of largely unknown foreign actors. Pitt and Blanchett star as Richard and Susan Jones, an American couple trying to save their marriage by going on holiday in Morocco. I personally found both characters to be utterly unlikeable and, as their story was one of four interconnecting tales, they didn’t really have long enough on screen to change my mind. Richard and Susan’s lives are changed forever when the latter is shot by a stray bullet while the pair are travelling back to the hotel on their tour bus. This incident also changes the lives of Yusef and Ahmed; two young brothers whose jealousy of one another causes the former to shoot the bullet that injures Susan. Meanwhile, back in America, Richard and Susan’s twin children Debbie and Mike are being cared for by their Mexican nanny Amelia who hopes for a day off to attend her son’s wedding. When Richard is unable to arrange alternative childcare arrangements for his kids, Amelia decides to take the children across the border with the help of her reckless nephew Santiago. The film’s bleak nature eventually engulfs this story as Amelia has trouble crossing back from Mexico to the US and puts Mike and Debbie in danger as a result. The fourth story was my personal favourite although its connection to the original shooting was definitely the most tenuous. It focused on deaf Japanese teenager Chieko; whose father originally owned the rifle used in the incident as she desperately sought acceptance from her peers. I found Chieko to be the most identifiable character amongst the global cast and the scenes in which she tried to come on to a young police officer were incredibly touching.

Part of the reason for this is the tender performance given by Rinko Kikuchi, who was one of two of Babel’s stars to be nominated for acting awards. Although sign language was used throughout the film, Kikuchi’s strengths came in the form of her facial expressions which told the story of both her sexual frustration and her grief concerning her mother’s suicide. I did feel that Kikuchi’s turn was more deserving of the Best Supporting Actress prize than the eventual winner Jennifer Hudson; whose in-your-face performance in Dreamgirls was a million miles away from the Japanese actress’ sensitive portrayal of a deaf character. Nominated alongside Kikuchi was Adrian Barraza who, as Amelia, gave a great portrayal of a woman who’d been a mother to plenty of American children even though she received very little praise from the families who employed her. Also worthy of praise are Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani who brilliantly portrayed the two Moroccan children whose actions became a catalyst for the rest of the film.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vision for the film is beautifully realised thanks to Rodrigo Prieto’s excellent cinematography and Gustavo Santaolalla’s Oscar-winning score. Visually I can’t fault Babel with several scenes sticking in the mind long after the final credits rolled. One scene in particular, in which Chieko attends a disco, is especially memorable as the sound dips as we see things from both are point-of-view and hers. My major problem with Babel was its increasingly bleak story as Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay didn’t give anybody a happy ending with the possible exception of Chieko. A lot of the characters are also poorly-drawn with Richard and Susan coming off as particularly miserable which is a shame as Pitt and Blanchett’s talents are seemingly wasted as a result. However, I did enjoy Babel more than I thought I would and it’s definitely deserving of its place among the five Best Picture contenders.


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