By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- The current vogue for movies splintered into a social cross-section goes global with "Babel," the third in a trilogy of triptychs from writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Like "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," "Babel" crosses three sets of disparate characters' stories against each other, although this time the characters -- and plotlines -- are split across three continents.
In Morocco, a tour bus comes under fire from what the passengers assume must be terrorists. In fact, the culprits are two young boys getting the range of their father's new rifle.
This mischief has dire consequences. Susan (Cate Blanchett) is wounded, potentially fatally, and with no hospital for hundreds of miles the bus is diverted to the nearest village, where her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) desperately tries to secure medical attention. (Watch Blanchett and Pitt in a dramatic scene from "Babel." -- 1:28)
Back home, the American couple's two young kids are also on a journey, heading south of the border to celebrate their nanny's daughter's wedding. The party is raucous and ebullient. It's only when a nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) insists he's sober enough to drive them back that the trouble starts. (Watch the American children's backseat ride in Mexico -- 0:36)
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a deaf-mute teenager, Chieko (Kikuchi Rinko), is going crazy with loneliness. Over the course of a day and a night she reaches out to several men and boys for intimacy, including a police inspector who wants to interview her father, but each time her clumsy advances are rebuffed.
And yes, it all ties together -- sort of.
There's nothing new in this kind of construction -- you might trace it all the way back to D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic "Intolerance" if you've a mind to (perhaps Arriaga would, at that: cinema really was the universal language then, and Griffith's film climaxes with the fall of Babylon). Still, the wave of recent films adopting interlocking narratives does suggest some vague collective desire to break away from solitary heroes in favor of a more complex conception of cause and effect. I'm thinking of "Short Cuts," "Pulp Fiction," "Magnolia," "Traffic," "Syriana" and Michael Haneke's "Code: Unknown" -- though admittedly the reactionary "Crash" gives the lie to any such fallacy.
Still, underneath its "We Are the World" humanism, "Babel" comes with its own geo-political agenda. It's a critique of isolationism, power and privilege that is most explicit -- or at least, assumes the greatest resonance -- in the North African story, where Western paranoia turns an accident into a full-blown international crisis.
Inarritu bears down on the human drama, where inequities are most keenly felt. We hear the anger in Brad Pitt's voice as he tries to assume command of a hopeless situation, see the fear in his eyes as he realizes there is nothing for it but the mercy of dirt farmers. Even then, he's forced to contend with the mounting panic among the other tourists, whose self-preservation instincts don't take long to surface. It may be the film's greatest strength that it's just as sensitive to the perspective of the bewildered Moroccans, and arguably more so.
With Inarritu's skillful handling the other stories generate a similar pitch of intensity, but here writer Arriaga's material is less convincing, and taken one on top of the other, the movie's relentless determination to show us a bad time begins to smack of bad faith.
I don't think I've ever seen a more vivid expression of isolation in a crowd than a virtuoso sequence when a stoned Chieko enters a thudding Tokyo discotheque, but such empathetic atmospherics can only camouflage a flimsy story with the most tenuous link to the others. The only respite from all this suffering comes during the Mexican wedding, a raucous outdoor affair with beer, dancing and a glimpse of romance -- but even these fleeting scenes are underscored with (well-founded) foreboding.
"Babel" has much more on its mind than "Crash," and whichever way you look at it this is a more accomplished piece of filmmaking. While Pitt and Blanchett will doubtless pick up the Oscar buzz, the performances from many lesser known actors are just as searching: Adrianna Barraza as the Mexican nanny, Peter Wight as a stubborn English tourist, Kikuchi as the deaf-mute girl.
Yet for all its apparent scope, the film's in-your-face fatalism ultimately feels forced. The cumulative effect is more grueling than cathartic, even if it may also be good for the soul.
"Babel" runs 142 minutes and is rated R.
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Brad Pitt is a beleaguered husband in "Babel."
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