In case you hadn't heard, we're all connected to each other in one way or another; in the case of "Babel," they're mostly pretty scary. "Babel" follows in the long line of films designed to circle around and come out more or less where they started - "La Ronde," "Crash," and the first collaboration by "Babel"'s filmmakers, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his writing partner Guillermo Arriaga, "Amores Perros."
"Babel" tells its interrelated stories in a deliberately fragmented manner; a rifle is sold in the Moroccan desert to a Berber goatherd with two young sons; he gives it to them so they can guard the goats from jackals, but of course the boys start playing with it, firing at rocks and then at a tourist bus coming along the road, where the bullet hits an American tourist (Cate Blanchett), traveling with her husband (Brad Pitt) in an apparent attempt to patch up a failing marriage. They've left their two young children in the care of their Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) back home in San Diego.
But the nanny's son is being married that day in her own home town, south of Tijuana, and so, needing to attend it and unable to find someone to care for the kids, she - uh-oh - takes them back with her in a car driven by her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal). Will bad things happen on that trip? Is the pope German?
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Chieko, a deaf teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi), resentful of her widowed dad and with hormones raging, tries desperately to sample sex, liquor and drugs; we don't know yet what her connection is to the other people in the film, but if we wait a while the other shoe will drop here as well.
I don't mean to pick on "Babel;" it's not a failure as a film, but it strains so hard to wrench the stories around in order to make them meet, that it loses some of the power it might have had if it trusted each of them enough to let them breathe. So we never learn why Blanchett and Pitt are having problems; in fact we learn nothing about them as people or as a couple. The nanny and her nephew are stick figures constructed only in order to serve the plot (though Ms. Barraza is brilliant at making a human being out of her clichéd character). Chieko, in her sad acting-out, seems to belong in another film entirely.
But there are compensations: "Babel" has been stunningly shot by González Iñárritu's long-time cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; from the rocky, hilly Moroccan desert to the flat, bleak, totally unalike desert of the Mexico-California borderlands, to the stunning shots of a neon Tokyo, Prieto sets the stage for every moment and event. And his exquisite closeups of the actors reveal more than the screenplay itself does. "Babel" is a failure, but a provocative and honest one.