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FALL SNEAKS | THE DIRECTORS

In `Babel,' love is a universal language

September 10, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

HE calls it "the trilogy in my trilogy," but Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu isn't just playing a clever numbers game.

Do the math: The Mexican director's new film, "Babel," like his breakout hit "Amores Perros" (2000), is a unified story told in three interlocking parts. But its logistical ambitions surpass those of "Amores Perros" and his other feature film, "21 Grams" (2003), neither exactly a slacker effort.

Set in four countries (Morocco, Japan, Mexico and the United States), "Babel," opening Oct. 27, has four sets of interlocking protagonists, struggling to communicate in half a dozen languages (Spanish, English, Japanese, Arabic, Berber and sign language). The multinational cast mixes marquee Hollywood stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal) with lesser-known talents, such as Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, augmented with a large number of nonprofessional performers.

Pitt and Blanchett play American tourists whose lives are turned upside down when two Moroccan boys accidentally shoot at their tour bus in a remote desert region of the African country.

Meanwhile, the couple's two young children embark on their own high-risk adventure with their Mexican nanny. Through a series of coincidences, these interwoven tales eventually loop back to the saga of a rebellious, deaf-mute Japanese girl whose father may be implicated in a mysterious death.

Leo Tolstoy, in "Anna Karenina," observed that while happy families are all alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way. "Babel" attempts both to flip, and universalize, Tolstoy's famous adage.

"What makes people happy in Morocco or Japan or the United States, it can be very different," says the director at his Culver City offices. "But what makes us miserable and what makes us sad is exactly the same for everybody. What exactly is the tragedy of not being able to love, of not being able to receive and absorb love. And the vulnerability that we have for the ones that we love. Those things are universal no matter who you are. That is when we share that empathy. That's what I discovered in this film."

The movie's title obviously alludes to the Old Testament story in which God "confused the tongues" of men because they had defied him by trying to construct the massive Tower of Babel to glorify themselves. God's punishment was to divide humanity by making people speak different languages.

"Babel" updates the biblical allegory by addressing some of today's burning global issues: immigration, the cultural clash between East and West, and the spiritual confusion that many privileged First World-ers feel.

"I want to talk about, I would say, these big-scale kind of things but from the intimate universe of a couple, of Brad Pitt, of the [Japanese] father and daughter," Inarritu says. "I don't want to make a film about politicians talking in their offices. I don't care about that."

The main theme of "Babel," Inarritu says, is the same as for the other two films in his "trilogy." "In the end, you can talk philosophically and socially and politically," he says. "But the bottom line for me is: 'Babel' is just a simple film about four intimate stories about parents and sons -- that's it."

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reed.johnson@latimes.com.

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