With their new film, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga have built their own exquisitely cinematic Tower of Babel, and the proportions are nearly biblical. Ambitiously vaulting toward the heavens, a global testament to the curiously incommunicative species that is man, "Babel" is a ziggurat of brilliant pieces built on sand. It's also this season's "Crash," a movie you know is Important because it never stops telling you so.
Real, incisive human moments pierce the murk, all the more valuable for feeling throwaway -- the film struggles to be as true as it is portentous. One responds to such empathetic hectoring or one doesn't; either the sight of so many different characters bursting into tears brings on your own catharsis or leaves you feeling as if the movie's doing the weeping for you.
Using a style similar to González Iñárritu and Arriaga's previous (and better) films, "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," "Babel" tells four separate stories that slowly reveal their interconnectedness. The one on the movie posters stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as Richard and Susan, wealthy Americans fleeing a family tragedy by touring Morocco on a bus. Nearby, the two young sons (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) of a goat herder (Abdelkader Bara) toy with a gun they've been given to ward off jackals; the resulting accident brings a grievously wounded Susan to a tiny desert village where her life hangs in the balance.
Meanwhile, in San Diego, a Mexican nanny named Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is forced by circumstances to take her two young Anglo charges (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) across the border to her son's wedding. In Tokyo, a deaf-mute teenage girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) batters against the wall of her isolation, acting out her hormonal rage with shocking lack of restraint.
What's the connection? There are plot hooks linking these characters together, but the filmmakers' larger message is that they are us and we are them and we're all in the same miserable boat. Language -- and there are six of them in "Babel" if you count the signing -- is the governing metaphor for our fall from grace, but there are barriers to understanding everywhere, from the U S -Mexican border Amelia crosses and recrosses in mounting distress to the sheet of bus-window glass that keeps Susan from encountering the Third World (and that is subsequently pierced with eerie silence ) .
The movie has big ideas and big performances, and just as many notions left lying on the floor. Susan's accident becomes an international incident, with U S authorities crying terrorism where there is none, but we only hear about this second hand; the way governments use fear to divide is raised, then largely ignored. Likewise, the Americans' imperious misunderstanding of local North African culture is only glanced upon before it's resolved with a glimmer of universal brotherhood.
González Iñárritu is more interested in the ants than the ant colony, and he elicits remarkable performances from the mostly nonprofessional cast. The goat herder's sons, Yusef and Ahmed, come across as specific individuals -- the younger brother daring and smart, the elder uncertain and reactionary -- and as Chieko, the deaf Kikuchi turns in a volcanic portrayal of a girl on the edge of meltdown.
Pitt and Blanchett are in a different pickle: Their very Hollywood glamour works both for and against them. Pitt tries his hardest -- those bags under his eyes are impressive -- but he's unable to escape his innate Brad-ness until a climactic scene during which all of Richard's anxieties pour out in a terrifying rush. By then, "Babel" has made sure all its characters have had a good cry, and the tidiness of the conceit gets in the way of our own emotional connection.
There are sequences to dazzle the mind and the senses here -- the Mexican wedding, a beautifully strung-together scene in a Tokyo nightclub -- and González Iñárritu has the skill to throw vast amounts of information onto the screen with uncanny clarity. (Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography and the editing by Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise deserve ample credit as well). He just as often lets a scene run on past its maximum point of impact, though, and the ambition that pushes "Babel" toward its grand statement -- which is, in the end, simply that love conquers all -- also inflates it into the merely grandiose.
Should we begrudge filmmakers who aim for the stars, the better to see our global village in all its sad, moving entirety? Of course not. Yet for a movie that insists on the truth of humanity's mutual dependency, "Babel" feels disconnected from anything but its own artistic determinism.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.