Babel is, if nothing else, ambitious. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu wants to tell the story of about a dozen characters, showing how their seemingly selfish actions, transpiring in nations on four different continents, reverberate throughout the world. There is a seriousness to the film that lends it an illusory air of importance. The most harrowing scene exemplifies its surface strengths, but betrays the hollowness at the film's core. As Amelia (Adriana Barraza) stumbles lost through the desert, attempting to find help before her young charges succumb to heat stroke or some other horrendous fate, the average audience member will feel as if he or she is being put in a physical and emotional vice. Ace cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures the oppressive heat, and never allows the audience to forget how much of a speck the character is in the vast landscape. This sequence is harrowing, but it goes on so long that one can't help think about what it actually "means." As a piece of old-fashioned, D.W. Griffith-inspired melodrama, the film is technically masterful, but there seems to be no reason for the characters to be experiencing these awful moments except for the fact the director knows that a child in danger will automatically capture the interest of an audience. This same problem affects just about every scene in the movie. Taken individually, they work on an audience. They have power. But taken as a whole, there seems to be no real connective thread. Aside from a haunted, powerful performance by Rinko Kikuchi as a deaf Japanese teenager in palpably deep mourning, none of the actors are given material that allows them to communicate the great pains their characters feel in ways that stay with you when they are offscreen. The director throws a lot of big themes around -- miscommunication, mistreatment of children, and the state of international relations -- but never once does Babel feel like it is really about any of these topics. They are merely concepts that Iñárritu hopes will lend credibility to the extreme physical and emotional distress under which he places his characters. For a film supposedly about the difficulty to communicate, Babel, ironically, has so much to say that it ends up a frustrating jumble.
by Perry Seibert review