Newsweek – September 04, 2006

WORLDS AWAY – by Lorraine Ali

As Hollywood starts getting heavy again, the intense, globe-trotting ‘Babel’ tries
making art out of tears and fears.

It’s three in the morning and thick clouds of dust roll across the rural Mexican dirt road like New England fog. Nearby, strings of bare-bulbed lights illuminate an outdoor fiesta where dozens of Tecate locals in cowboy boots and chunky heels dance to the rowdy ranchero band Los Incomparables. But not everyone’s having fun. A cameraman on the perimeter of the set has had it with all the errant chickens underfoot. “Get the f— out of here!” he orders, but this chicken doesn’t speak English. “¡Silencio, por favor!” yells a stage manager from the other side of the clapboard fence, and the bird stops in its tracks.

Communication breakdowns and cultural rifts drive Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel,” a film that spans three continents, seven languages and many leagues’ worth of buried emotion. It’s his latest in a trilogy that includes “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” but this time, the Mexican director’s overlapping stories have gone global. Two Moroccan brothers testing their dad’s rifle accidentally shoot an American tourist named Susan (Cate Blanchett), and in an instant dozens of lives are intertwined. Susan and her husband, Richard (Brad Pitt), are forced to rely on rural villagers—and each other—as she
fights for her life. The Arab boys’ humble family pays the price when the shooting is interpreted as a terrorist incident with international implications.

Meanwhile, the American couple’s children are supposedly safe at home in California, except that their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), has taken them to Baja for her son’s wedding, where she runs into trouble at the border, thanks to her smart-mouthed nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal), who’s chauffeuring her around. In Tokyo, the deaf-mute teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) and her father, a businessman who once gave his rifle away to a local on a Moroccan hunting trip, are perilously drifting apart after her mother’s suicide. “I kept saying to myself, ‘If this doesn’t work, it will be one of the
most horrible disasters in film history’,” says Iñárritu. “It’s four short stories that have nothing to do with each other. There’s no one apparent connection, so it all could look like a National Geographic special on global cultures.”

Iñárritu has been resting easier since “Babel” won best director at Cannes this past May. The film, written by Guillermo Arriaga, is compelling, intense and emotionally draining, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. “By the end there’s a moment similar to ‘The Pianist’,” says Blanchett. “The whole vision of that film had been in small rooms and internal spaces, and suddenly, he climbed over the wall and saw the shattered remnants of Berlin, and you were taken to this epic place. I think what Alejandro has done is supremely masterful. What could have been a mission statement is really very subtle and sophisticated in an almost subterranean way.”

Most of the folks in “Babel” are not actors but locals from the areas where the film was shot (“Alejandro always picks the best places: dusty, difficult and beautiful,” says Bernal, a longtime friend). In Japan, Iñárritu found many of the girls at a school for the deaf. In Morocco, he had muezzins make announcements from the minarets of mosques (“Want to be in a movie?”) and in Mexico, his casting agent scoured weddings and marketplaces. They found Alfredo Macias, 19, in a local club. He plays the groom. “My character is explosive, unpredictable,” says Macias. “He loves women and getting into fights. He’s just like me.” Claudia Sylvia Mendoza, who plays the groom’s grandma, was spotted at an Ensenada market. “I’ve always admired great actresses in soap operas,” she says. “Sometimes they play my own life. I watch and imagine which one I could be.”

Real people with unbleached teeth certainly make for more authentic characters, but it wasn’t always easy working with novices. On the set in Tecate, Iñárritu spent two hours and most of his patience trying to get one of his drunk nonactors to simply stay within the camera’s frame. During a wrenching scene in Morocco, Blanchett’s character is fighting for her life, but the villager tapped to play her caregiver kept smiling at the camera. “It was very dispiriting to see Cate giving me take after take with all her heart, killing herself,” says Iñárritu. “I think we finally got it on take number 32.”

Pitt, Blanchett and Bernal had of course read the script, but it was almost impossible to pull back and see the big picture that the director was attempting to draw: all the plotlines seemed so disconnected. “I thought, ‘I’m sure it will be great whatever it is’,” says Bernal, whose first film was “Amores Perros.” “But it’s like walking in blindfolded. Only Alejandro really knows the big spectrum. I’m just a humble servant working here. I know what my one function is; it’s very specific.” He smiles. “I’m just the chauffeur in the Brad Pitt movie.” Sure. And “Babel” is just a little local movie—that conjures up the world.