Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s BABEL (2006) completed the trilogy that began with AMORES PERRES (2000) and 21 GRAMS (2003). The multi-cultural BABEL tells four interlocking stories on three continents in five languages.
Brad Pritt and Cate Blanchett star as an unhappy American couple on vacation in Morocco. When Blanchett is accidentally shot by a stray bullet from a shepherd boy in the hills, it results in an international crisis. Back home in San Diego, Brad and Cate’s housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) takes their two young children over the Mexican border in order to attend her son’s wedding. While in Japan, a deaf student (Rinko Kikuchi) goes to desperate measures to be noticed by her father (Koji Yakusho), whose old rifle that was sold to his Moroccan safari guide sets the story in motion.
Inarritu described BABEL as “a film about the complex relationship between parents and their children. It is also about the borders that not only divide nations and cultures, but the real, borderlines that live within ourselves that can only be erased by compassion…” While the film doesn’t totally succeed, it aims high and has something to say in its memorable images. Barraza and Kikuchi stand out in their justly Oscar-nominated supporting performances.
Gustavo Santaolalla traveled to each location to do research. “Because the movie took place in such different, colorful places,” he said, “we didn’t want it to sound like a National Geographic documentary. The challenge was to find a sound that would be common to everywhere without becoming too regional.”
That common sound turned out to be the oud, a Middle Eastern lute. Santaolalla taught himself the rare instrument and instead of playing it with a pick, he played it with his fingers. “For me, it had a resonance that connected to all the places,” he said, “but played in that way, it became an instrument to project my vision of it, and particularly in a folk idiom.”
Another unique sound to the score was the use of pure sine waves, an electronic sound that was used in early electronic music. “Nowadays, with synthesizers, they have sounds that are composed by things that create harmonics and different effects,” Santaolalla explained, “but pure sine waves have no harmonics, so they almost have a psychoacoustic effect.”
Santaolalla did not attempt to create leitmotifs or character development. While the three main locales–Morocco, Mexico, and Japan–all have a distinctive sound to them (thanks in no small part to additional source cues and pre-existing tunes), Santaolalla’s oud-flavored score crosses the cultural barriers to unify the entire musical sound of the film.
Many film music fans have strong feelings against Santaolalla. If his Oscar win for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN the year before wasn’t bad enough (at least according to the fans), his back-to-back win for BABEL sent them into apoplexy…and still does. While my choice for the Oscar would have been Thomas Newman’s score for THE GOOD GERMAN or basically any of the other three nominees—Philip Glass’ NOTES ON A SCANDAL, Javier Navarette’s PAN’S LABYRINTH, Alexandre Desplat’s THE QUEEN—Santaolalla’s BABEL score (which clocks in at a mere 18 minutes on the “for your consideration” promo disc that was sent to Academy voters) complements the film, though the most famous musical segments come from pre-existing tunes by Oscar-winner Ryuichi Sakamoto in the Japanese sections and Santaolalla himself. Yes, the score won the Oscar as a consolation prize since the film wasn’t going to win anything else, but take the Oscar out of the equation and it’s an effective piece of scoring, if not nearly as memorable as his work on BROKEBACK.