Heading South.

Starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Running Time: 142 minutes.
Rated: Rated MA 15+.
A very fine film.

Writer Guillermo Arriaga brings his now famous skill in presenting several interwoven stories while playing with timelines (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and winner of the 2005 Cannes award for screenplay, Melquiades Estrada). Director Inarritu shows great sensitivity, impressive craft and finesse as he moves with ease from the deserts and mountains of Morocco to the deserts and villages of Mexico to the neon brightness of central Tokyo. There is an arresting score and such vivid photography that the landscapes become characters in the stories. Inarritu and Arriaga have opted to be more accessible than in their previous films.

Many of the cast are non-professionals, especially in the Moroccan stories where the family in the mountains, especially the two young boys, stand out. A number of deaf students appear in the Japanese story. And Mexican Inarritu is able to create a wedding celebration with exuberant Hispanic verve.

The stars are excellent as well. Brad Pitt gives a strongly tender performance, only broken in the loud and demanding American way when he is at his wit's end. Cate Blanchett could have limited herself to an almost passive role but she brings vitality to the wounded wife. Gael Garcia Bernal grins and whoops a lot until the American border guards drive him to desperation. In Japan, Koji Yakusho is a widowed father who is at a loss to communicate with his deaf daughter (a tour-de-force performance from Rinko Kikuchi). Adriana Barraza as the American children's nanny ensures that the Mexican story is emotional and moving.

Babel is the Genesis image: God confounds the human race by creating languages, confusion, misinterpretation. Inarritu notes that while languages separate (Moroccan from American, Spanish from English, Japanese from sign language), there is a common human spine, a common human core. Suffering can destroy but it can also lead to transformation and reconciliation.

The misunderstanding theme is very strong as Americans, especially amid the apprehensions from the war against terrorism, are prone to fear the worst and interpret more straightforward events in a sinister way. An accidental shooting becomes an alert against fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. Just being a Mexican at the American border can lead to frayed tempers, presumptions of guilt and the unnecessarily heavy hand of the law.

The other theme concerns consequences of actions and responsibility, where disasters can follow from a boast, a rivalry, a lie, a good-hearted decision that can be threatened by legal action.

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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