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DVD Pick: Babel (Two-Disc Collector's Edition)

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Exuberant Filmmaking Interweaving Stories Around the Globe

Set in Morocco, Japan and the California-Mexico border area, Babel (2006) intercuts linked stories of four families. The stunning visual style artfully intermixes close-ups of people with landscapes and cityscapes, capturing the differing lifestyles of the rural North African desert, Tokyo and the San Diego-Tijuana area. Above all, the film is intensely emotional.

The majority of Babel's dialogue is in English, but also heard are Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Berber and French. In addition, some sign language is used since a key character is deaf. The DVD provides English and Spanish subtitles.

The director of Babel was Alejandro González Iñárritu, and the screenwriter was Guillermo Arriaga. They previously did Amores perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003), and the three movies can be considered a trilogy. However, each works as a standalone film.

The music by Gustavo Santaolalla heightens the movie's emotionality.

Strong International Cast With Two Standout Performances

No single actor or pair of actors dominates Babel, although Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play important roles. They are fine in unflashy parts, and their presence helps many viewers feel more comfortable with a film that is not typical Hollywood fare.

World cinema buffs will probably recognize Gael García Bernal and possibly Koji Yakusho. Both are good here, but their roles don't require all that much.

The best performances are by actresses who are not well-known in the English-speaking world: Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi. Both were nominated for Academy Awards.

Two Spectacular Sequences

Babel contains two dazzling sequences. One involves Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a middle-aged San Diego nanny of Mexican descent. She travels by way of dirt roads outside Tijuana to her ancestral village to attend her son's wedding. It's a joyous celebration culminating in a big, boisterous reception complete with musicians, dancing and appetizing food. Amelia even manages to slip away from the crowd for a while to enjoy a little romance with a widower.

The other sensational sequence centers around Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese teenage girl who is profoundly deaf and does not speak. Chieko goes to a lively Tokyo nightclub with blaring rock music, flashing lights and a sea of writhing bodies. She is thrilled by the energy level and joins in as best she can. But the film occasionally reduces the sound level for a few moments to a dull, distant-sounding, rhythmic thumping so we in the audience can appreciate how little Chieko is hearing.

A Jigsaw-Puzzle Narrative Structure

Babel tells the interconnected stories of four families on three continents. The film spends only a few minutes at a time on any one family's story before cutting to another family's story. Furthermore, events do not unfold in chronological order. The movie is demanding, but it's not difficult for the attentive viewer to follow, and by the end all the pieces have fallen into place.

One story involves an American married couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) visiting a remote part of Morocco, where the wife is the victim of an accident that threatens her life. A second, closely related story is about a rural Moroccan family that ekes out a living raising goats.

A third story, only peripherally related to one of the Morocco stories, is about a San Diego nanny (Adriana Barraza) who takes her Anglo employers' children to Mexico. But things go wrong on the trip, and the kids end up in peril.

The fourth story, which is tenuously linked to one of the Morocco stories, focuses on a teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo. Her inability to hear or speak makes her feel hopelessly isolated, and out of desperation she tries to use inappropriate nudity and aggressive sexual behavior as a way to connect with others.

The film has a visceral impact and leaves many viewers feeling exhausted. Also, it doesn't provide the strong sense of closure that most mainstream movies do. However, Babel isn't completely downbeat: although one of the four stories ends in tragedy and another ends with an unhappy character, two of the four families are better off at film's end than they were at the beginning.

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