IF a butterfly flaps its wings in the rain forest, it will, if nothing else, set off an infinite chain reaction in the minds of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his creative collaborator, Guillermo Arriaga. The director and screenwriter have a thing for causal connections, which, in "Babel," they literally track to the ends of the Earth.
As in "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," their two previous collaborations, "Babel," which won the best director award at Cannes, ties together four seemingly unconnected stories that are eventually revealed to be inextricably linked to one another. The first story begins in the Moroccan desert, where a farmer named Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) buys a rifle to protect his goats from jackals, and hands it over to his two young sons, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani), who, fooling around, take a careless potshot at a passing bus.
The second takes place in San Diego and later in a small Mexican border town, where Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican nanny, takes her young charges Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning) to attend her son's wedding when their traveling parents refuse to let the woman take the day off. What at first seems like heartless authoritarianism on the part of her employer turns out to be the result of a tragedy. Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are traveling in Morocco when their bus is attacked in what appears to be a terrorist incident.
As its title implies, "Babel" is about the difficulty of human communication, but although the stories unfold in four countries and in five languages -- English, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese and sign -- language is far from the principal barrier. Instead, the film explores the ways in which cultural assumptions and biases tend to obscure reality even when reality is plain, and the way our perceived differences keep us from finding a human connection to one other.
If the relationship among the first three stories -- each gingerly perched on an explosive political issue -- soon become apparent (Susan's freak accident is quickly spun into an international crisis; Amelia falls into an immigration quagmire when her drunk nephew, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, provokes the border guards on their way home), the fourth story takes awhile to reveal itself.
Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf Japanese teenager whose mother has recently committed suicide, acts out her grief and feelings of isolation by throwing herself at every man or boy who crosses her path. She drifts through the crowded, pulsing streets of Tokyo, shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Pietro as though the city were a beautiful, whimsical contraption that appears even more startling and dreamlike when the sound drops out. Chieko's connection to the others is tenuous, but her experience provides the lyrical counterpoint to what are otherwise Kafkaesque tragedies about individuals swallowed up by the bureaucratic machinery of nationhood.
The beauty of this film is in its lapidary details, which sparkle with feeling and surprise. Gonzalez Inarritu and Arriaga, both Mexican (Gonzalez Inarritu now resides with his family in the United States), are particularly attuned to the vulnerability of the foreigner abroad -- whether that vulnerability is real or imagined. After the tour bus takes a detour to the guide's village to find the closest doctor, the other tourists become jittery and anxious to leave the wounded passenger behind. But the tourists' paranoia -- they are American, French and British -- is in no way justified by the treatment they receive in the village, where the townspeople show them kindness or stay out of their way. Conversely, Amelia fully expects the authorities to come to her aid, but is treated like a criminal first and a person in distress second by the border guides who find her after her ordeal. In a particularly wrenching scene, a border cop of apparent Mexican descent cuffs her while ignoring her pleas for help, responding to her mostly Spanish pleas strictly in English.
Clearly, Gonzalez Inarritu knows his Weltschmerz, and he burrows deep into the existential loneliness of each character to create a kaleidoscope of cumulative human sadness and grief over the state of the world. With uncommon empathy and insight, he elicits moving performances from all the actors -- down to the incidental detective who comes to talk to Chieko. The experience, followed by a chance encounter with her father, leaves him shaken, disoriented and hitting the nearest bar -- by then you know exactly how he feels.