These days finesse in the art of montage is too often used to compensate for ineptitude (or just laziness) in the art of storytelling. Of course, rhythmic, Eisensteinian montage can be beautiful in itself and can even bear the weight of actual substance. Right now there is no more impressive practitioner of this particular skill than Alejandro González Iñárritu, who since his first feature, Amores Perros, has worked on the kinds of expansive, crisis-driven, crisscrossing stories that practically require cathartic crescendos of pure editorial bravado.
González Iñárritu doesn’t write his own screenplays (Guillermo Arriaga does), and the two features since Perros have credited others as editors. But Perros, 21 Grams, and the new Babel are so much of a piece — conceptually, thematically, stylistically — and the work his collaborators have done elsewhere is so dissimilar that there's no doubting González Iñárritu’s all-controlling hand.
Anyone who works on so ambitious a scale risks missteps and unevenness. Babel is a teetering monument, and its plot is hole pocked as if made of Swiss cheese. Yet it's also better shaped as a whole than Amores Perros and carries its burden of existential hand-wringing less pretentiously than 21 Grams. Mercifully, it abjures the latter's jaundiced palette for Rodrigo Prieto's full-bodied, naturalistic wide-screen compositions. There are individual passages that are as dazzling as anything onscreen this year. Perros told three consecutive Mexico City stories; Grams interwove three chronology-scrambled threads set mostly in New Mexico (though originally conceived for Mexico City). Babel sprawls across the globe, tenuously linking tales of culture shock in Mexico, Japan, and Morocco.
The last is where San Diegan professionals Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have gone for reparative alone time. They're about to reconcile, maybe, when a stray bullet from a young goatherd’s gun strikes their tour bus. The panic among fellow passengers and impact on innocent locals are ramped up by international media attention on this "terrorist act."
The same couple's two preschool children are back in San Diego with Mexican housekeeper-cum-nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). She's willing to go the extra mile when the globe-trotting parents get in trouble — but not, when those troubles drag on, to miss her own son's wedding. Amelia finally decides to take her towheaded charges across the border, with reckless nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) as their most untrustworthy chauffeur.
Ultimately connected to these dramas by the thinnest of threads, a third strand centers on deaf-mute Tokyo teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Her mother is dead, her CEO father distant. Further alienated from the speaking world, Chieko plunges into raver postures of wannabe nymphomania that are by far Babel's least convincing or pointed ploy. Still, they engender the movie's most exhilarating montage — an ecstasy-propelled joyride that arcs from desire to bliss to aftermath, only slightly overdoing the audio on-off effects meant to capture the nonhearing experience.
What is González Iñárritu saying here? Why are the near-death experiences of American yuppies straying outside their home safety zone — in nations painted as menacingly chaotic, even the director's native Mexico — more vivid than the travails of residents? Surely that's not González Iñárritu’s intention, but the star power of Pitt and Blanchett and the pixie perils endured by their fictive kids tend to tip the scales in that direction. In interviews the director says what he thought would be a movie about cultural differences ended up being about subjects — family, parenting, compassion — that unite all people. Babel does gesture thataway, yet its primary emphasis is on crisis creation and ambulance chasing.