Adriana Barraza in Babel (2006) - Supporting Actress Sundays: Special Wednesday Edition

Babel -- an international tale of intercultural confusion -- entwines four intricate mini-narratives (plus at least five languages and three continents) through the shared connection of a single shot from an antique rifle. Though the wags have long called Babel "Crash with subtitles" or "international Crash," StinkyLulu -- after rescreening the film -- is inclined to think such comparisons to last year's Oscar winner a touch insulting...to Crash. In terms of narrative sophistication, clarity and plausibility, a better point of comparison might be The Butterfly Effect, the 2004 Ashton Kutcher epic of freaky interconnection. Like Babel, The Butterfly Effect presents a harrowing connect-the-dots tale with a similarly blithe disregard for basic narrative plausibility. The whole proceeding is mostly a twisty adolescent stunt, the kind of simplistic cleverness that sounds really profound at 3AM in the dorms when everyone's had a few. But like the much more entertaining Kutcher vehicle, the "International Butterfly Effect with Subtitles" does boast a handful of luminous performances (some from kid actors), the most effective of which is delivered by Hollywood newcomer...

...Adriana Barraza in Babel (2006).
approximately 20 minutes and 43 seconds on-screen
20 scenes
roughly 10% of film's total screen time

Adriana Barraza -- one of Mexico's most revered acting teachers -- plays Amelia, the longtime housekeeper for a San Diego family and primary caregiver for two tow-headed moppets, Debbie and Mike (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble). Their blithely wealthy parents (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are on a jaunt to North Africa, ostensibly to heal a rift in their marriage. (Hints of a third dead child decorate early scenes.) When a "stray" bullet from a young shepherd's rifle punctures Blanchett's shoulder, "The Butterfly Effect of Gun Violence" begins to unspool.

For Barraza's Amelia, the anchor of one of Babel's four main narrative strands, the implications of this bullet are simple. Their parents' return thus delayed, Barraza's Amelia must remain in charge of little Debbie and Mike. The problem? Amelia's adult son is getting married that same afternoon just across the border in Mexico and Amelia really wants to be there. After trying unsuccessfully to farm the kids out to neighboring housekeepers (don't these rich white folks have friends? associates? ancillary staff?), Amelia makes the fateful decision to take little Debbie and Mike along with her to Mexico.

At first the trip seems fun. Crossing the border into Mexico is bright, colorful, exotic, exciting. Fanning's Debbie enjoys the adventure; Gamble's Mike finds the whole thing thrilling but terrifying. Both -- rightly -- seem a touch scared of Amelia's sketchy nephew Santiago (Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal, in an impressive, understated and accurate performance). The wedding's wonderful; everyone (even Mike) seems to have a good time. And then, in the middle of the night, Barraza's Amelia insists on returning the kids home ("They have soccer in the morning.") Here, the sense of dread that has hovered over Amelia's decision to take the kids into Mexico begins to descend as a caul of doom. Bernal's Santiago, whose actions during the wedding have shown him to be something of a hotshot roughneck, is a little drunk and, after being stopped by officers at the border, decides to make a run for it, crashing his car through the checkpoint (thus crossing the border really illegally) before ultimately dumping Amelia and the kids in the Sonoran desert in the middle of the night. And thus begins the bulk of Barraza's performance as Amelia trudges and tromps through the desert, first carrying the seemingly comatose Debbie, and then leaving both kids under a shrub to seek help on her own.

Barraza deftly negotiates this reductive arc (take kids to Mexico - take kids home - leave kids in desert - suffer consequences) to create a fully characterized Amelia. Though the scenes presented in the film are certainly among the character's most traumatic and life-changing experiences, Barraza's performance also permits an awareness of Amelia's life beyond these scenes through simple, undistracting detail. For example, note how Barraza calibrates Amelia's negotiation of authority. Lovingly in charge with the kids, she seems to shrink an inch or two into a posture of averted-eyes humility when speaking to their father on the phone. Her casual authority as Santiago's elder comadre on the trip to the wedding transforms into palpable fear as he becomes the macho and she the mujer. And, perhaps most heartbreakingly, her various attempts to maneuver the cruelties of her FBI interrogator: in a brilliantly performed two minute quick-change aria of a scene, Barraza's Amelia attempts each of the strategies we've already seen her use -- scraping deference, quick hustle resourcefulness, maternal love, strategic acquiescence, quiet independence, dogged determination -- before experimenting one with we've not yet seen (one, perhaps, she's never tried) American entitlement. Of course, Amelia suffers a casual but brutal smackdown for being so uppity and her subsequent humiliating criminalization resonates with the anguish of a lifetime's humility and hardwork so transformed.

In Barraza's Amelia, we can perhaps glimpse what Babel aspired to be: a bravura performance of human experience that both transcends and calls attention to the cruel superficiality of social, cultural and national distinctions. Unfortunately, though, not even an actor of Barraza's formidable skill can carry this turkey through the vast desert of directorial self-aggrandizement.


newland said...

Haven't seen Blanchett yet, but my vote nevertheless goes to Barraza. She is the best in the film (really, I don't get the fuss about Kikuchi, she's so average) but she won't win. A nomination is probably enough taking into account that she is an unknown actress acting in a foreign language for the most part of the film.

Breslin and Hudson seem quite appropriate nominees to me, and wouldn't mind any of them winning. But my overall impression is that it wasn't such a good year for supporting actresses after all. There are normally tons of nomination worthy performances all around, but this doesn't seem the case this year, and the fact that these five ladies popped up in almost any major award proves it.

Let the best actressing at the ages win...

J.J. said...

I'm still so pleased she's nominated. When I saw Babel last year, I thought, "This woman is terrific, but she's too unknown, too anonymous, to be nominated." But here we are. Sometimes the system is just.

RC said...

very nice...i should have let you write my original piece of barraza...this was great!

i completly agree with JJ here.

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com