Alejandro González Iñárritu's movies are like emotional grenades, explosive visions that leave audiences raw-nerved and spent. The Mexican director's 2000 debut, Amores Perros (Life Is a Bitch), is a feverish, laceratingly intense experience that marked the arrival of a filmmaker with singular talents.
His 2003 follow-up, 21 Grams, is a bit more polished but no less emotionally fraying, yet another incisive portrait of people struggling to deal with their place in the world.
Now comes his most ambitious film to date, Babel, the final installment in his collaborative trilogy with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga.
The story's continent-hopping narrative is set into motion when a vacationing American woman (Cate Blanchett) is struck by a stray bullet in a Moroccan desert, an occurrence that forces her distraught husband (an affecting Brad Pitt) to put his trust in the residents of a small mountain village.
We're then whisked away to parts of the globe that have a connection (both vaguely and overtly) to the shooting -- from a lonely, deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) to the American couple's nanny (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican woman who's taking care of the their two children in San Diego. And that's just the beginning of the film's cross-cutting logistics.
Babel revels in the director's signature traits: deftly-woven, overlapping story lines, heightened emotions and a skilled melding of sound and image.
"I make my films basically very visceral, very from the gut, and it's very intuitive," Iñárritu says during a recent interview at the Toronto Film Festival. "I guess I like to experience life like that. You know, not very cold.
"There are many ways that you can make a film, but I don't want to make them very intellectual, objective and from a distance and observe. I want to really get there (points to his gut). I want people to feel what the characters are experiencing."
Mission accomplished, Alejandro. Long and emotionally taxing, Babel certainly requires a degree of patience. Yet Iñárritu's immersive sound design, spare visual style (the intuitive camera work is largely handheld) and elemental physicality (blood, dirt, piss and saliva often mingle together) go a long way toward conveying the film's deep impact.
"I was able to free myself a little bit more, to trust in my talents and set my limitations and play with tools that I haven't given myself in the last two films," he says. "I was trying to discover the truth about what I was doing. In the end, filmmaking is a process. It's done in stages, and where you end up, normally, is with a very transformative piece."
One of the aforementioned tools is his deft use of sound design, an often overlooked aspect of a film's aesthetic.
"There's a tyranny of the image toward the sound, and I try to fight that back a little bit," he says. "I want the sound to have the power that it has, which sometimes is stronger than (the) image. And I like to use silence, which is sometimes more noisy than using music or using words. Having a deaf-mute teenager who wasn't able to speak, we were able to explore a lot of these kinds of contradictions."
Iñárritu's heavily accented voice is rife with emotion as he searches for the right words to describe his Babel experience. Dark-featured and dapper in a brown blazer, white dress shirt and jeans, he answers questions by looking one directly in the eye.
"In Morocco we really went through a very 'method' production," he says. "We were really struggling with a very uncomfortable and very confusing set because we were surrounded by people who talked Italian, French, American, Spanish, Arab. It was a mess. It was very hard."
Complicating things further was his use of non-actors, a decision he feels was crucial to the film's authenticity.
"I was looking for real actors, but I didn't find them," he says. "In Morocco, (actors) were so overloaded with bad habits and nice skins and not people from the desert. I would've had to use makeup, which would have looked terrible. I decided 17 days before (shooting) to search for non-actors in the streets. And I found all these people.
"The guy from the (production office's) computer system ends up with Brad Pitt in a film. I'm now spoiled by working with non-actors because I notice when somebody is acting."
While Babel shares many traits of his previous films -- including their dark view of human nature -- Iñárritu ultimately found its creation inspiring.
"I was very cynical and pessimistic about the human condition," he says. "I think after this film we were all transformed. When you touch people physically and experience people's lives and different cultures as extreme as the ones we shot, and you see so much beauty and humanity in people, it changes you. The way we were supported and surrounded, the way I felt living in those communities in Morocco or in my own country or in Japan, I felt now more optimistic about the human condition."
Babel is the next step in the director's personal evolution as well as in his continued examination of how we relate to one other. Iñárritu is interested in exploring -- and in many ways tearing down -- borders both literal and psychological. The result is a compelling look at the world today, a place where technology has made communication easier while we remain as culturally divided as ever.
"It gives you the possibilities to really observe how many things are happening at the same time," he says of his complex, multi-layered narratives. "The character will suffer without him knowing. But the audience knows. That's an extremely powerful storytelling tool."
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