The power of ‘Babel’ 

Even while shaking your head, you’re likely to be immersed in "Babel," director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s geopolitical and intimate tapestry centering on a shot felt round the globe. While propelled by, alas, a butterfly effect, the movie marvelously fills the space between its implausible lines with spark and reality. At worst, this is an engrossing gimmick film. When triumphant, it’s a non-phenomenal but stirring mosaic of both post-Sept. 11 and eternally human predicament.

"Babel" is the final installment, following "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," in a trilogy of dramas by González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga that link worlds-apart characters via a vehicle-related accident and unfold nonlinearly. The central theme is communication failure. It’s evident in language barriers, cultural arrogance and parent-child rifts in this multi-continental jigsaw semi-tragedy.

Things begin in Morocco, where two preteen goat-herders (Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani) are fooling around with their father’s rifle. The fateful bullet, fired at a tourist bus, first affects shakily married American passengers Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett). Susan’s wounds are life-threatening.

The incident, which the United States labels terrorism, then triggers a chain of trauma, in theform of a wrongheaded trip to Mexico, for the San Diego couple’s young children (Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble), their immigrant nanny (Adriana Barraza) and her hotheaded nephew (Gael García Bernal). The Moroccan family, too, feels the impact, as does a deaf Tokyo schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) whose father’s link to the gun completes the puzzle.

None of this is mind-blowing. The culture-clash and political issues recall "Crash" and "Syriana," and the butterfly-effect material is silly. The emotional impact is less than that of Atom Egoyan’s "The Sweet Hereafter," as pieced-together bus-disaster stories go.

But it’s still worthy topical fare mixed with private drama. Employing a gritty-humanist brush, González Iñárritu delivers, amid contrivances, truthful bits of war-on-terror paranoia, common humanity, personal isolation, harsh landscapes and vital connection and meshes them vibrantly.

The cast is impressive, and Mexico-born González Iñárritu doesn’t give his Hollywood superstars the brightest material. That honor goes to Barraza, who’s blazingly good as an undocumented immigrant navigating a hostile desert, and Kikuchi, who’s riveting as a confused teen damaged by her mother’s death. González Iñárritu, who seems to be evolving away from jigsaw mode, wisely allows the latter’s story, which barely relates to the Morocco events, to emotionally dominate the movie, and that’s smart filmmaking. Imperfect but captivating, "Babel" merits attention.

Movie review

Babel ***

Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, and Gael García Bernal.

Written by Guillermo Arriaga.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Rated R.

Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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