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Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES (2-DISC): 90-minute making of diary from the director.

MEXICAN director Alejandro González Iñárritu proved himself to be the master of complex yet emotionally involving multi-strand storytelling with earlier films Amores Perros and 21 Grams.

But Babel, his latest, ups the ante considerably, unfolding on an epic, global scale to emerge as his most ambitious work yet.

The title stems from the Christian legend about the famous tower built by a united humanity to reach towards heaven, which caused a furious God to make each person involved speak a different language and scatter them – confused and disconnected – across the planet.

And the concept is inspired by the notion that the gun that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and plunged Europe into the First World War fired a shot “that was heard around the world”.

Hence, Babel starts with a similar shot that has implications for people on three different continents.

The bullet in question is fired by two young Moroccan goat-herders who randomly target a tourist coach and accidentally hit an American tourist (Cate Blanchett’s Susan) who has been travelling with her husband (Brad Pitt’s Richard).

As they face a desperate battle for survival in the desert, their children back home in America are taken by their Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) across the border so that she can attend a family wedding.

And a Japanese businessman estranged from his deaf-mute daughter (Rinko Kikuchi) must also come to face his unlikely involvement in the Moroccan incident.

Given the ambitious scope of proceedings, it’s hardly surprising that Iñárritu’s movie isn’t always successful in engaging the audience.

It’s long, often slow and feels over-populated by characters the director sometimes struggles to flesh out.

It’s also emotionally draining as each of the four central stories layers on the tragedy.

But there is eventually a feeling of hope that rewards the patient viewer and some truly excellent performances to savour.

Pitt and Blanchett undoubtedly steal the limelight because of their Hollywood status and both are excellent as an estranged couple forced to put their broken relationship through the sternest test. Pitt, especially, is heartbreaking when talking to his children by phone, struggling to hold back his tears.

But there are also exceptional performances from Japanese newcomer Rinko Kikuchi, as a deaf-mute daughter, who feels hopelessly isolated from the world around her, and from Adriana Barraza as the nanny at the centre of a massive dilemma.

Gael Garcia Bernal also brings a tremendous amount of energy to his role as an impetuous hothead whose recklessness has serious consequences for Barraza’s nanny.

The many messages contained within the film are also worth contemplating long after the final reel, especially since the director allows audiences to come to their own opinions.

Iñárritu doesn’t always provide the sense of closure that mainstream viewers might expect but deserves credit for refusing to compromise on his core values – for all of its blockbuster values, it maintains an independent feel.

It’s just that the epic scope occasionally prevents everything from working as a cohesive whole.

The Japanese sub-plot, though beautifully shot and acted, often feels unnecessary given the tenuous nature of the link and may have worked better as an isolated movie.

It struggles to engage as emphatically when set against the breathless energy of the Mexico and Morocco stories and often disrupts the flow of the movie.

But Babel is to be recommended in spite of its flaws because of the intelligent way it goes about examining its themes. There are no easy answers to the problems it raises and Iñárritu doesn’t profess to offer any – despite offering some hope.

It’s insightful, gripping viewing that ought to strike a chord with every one in some way.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 23mins