The four stories are set on three different continents, as we see the shooting in Morocco from both the boys' point of view and that of the unfortunate American tourists (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), whilst periodically being whipped off to Mexico to see what is happening to Brad and Cate's children and their nanny (Adriana Barraza) and to Japan to follow the adventures of a deaf teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who is desperate to get laid. Ultimately, there is a link from the first to the last, which is, to say the least, contrived, but in my opinion much less insulting than many other cinematic coincidences.
In many ways this film reminds me of the surprise winner of last year's Best Picture Oscar, Crash. Both films have a large ensemble cast and feature several intertwining storylines and both are about the similarities between people of different cultures and the prejudices that divide them. However, this film is considerably better than Crash, which I found to be a shallow and exploitative study of racism in America (the theme of Crash could be summarised as "Racism is bad, okay"). This, while still having flaws aplenty, manages to give more depth to each of the characters and doesn't end with everyone having exactly the same trite epiphany.
Each story does have something worthwhile to say: the Moroccan boys find out about the consequences of their actions, while the story simultaneously portrays the ridiculous over-reaction that the world now has to a perceived act of terrorism (witness the British media coverage of the arrest of nine Muslim men in Birmingham recently). Brad and Cate's story shows that there is innate kindness to be found in people throughout the world.
Barraza's nanny, who takes the two children in her charge to her son's wedding and fails to bring them back safely, also learns about responsibility and the consequences of one bad decision. And the Japanese story looks at the difficulty of being isolated through the eyes of a teenage girl, Chieko, whose emotional distance from her grieving father leads her to behave in an increasingly bizarre manner. Of course, there is little original being said here – the funniest and most unusual strand is that of Chieko, which is probably a bit out of place here and was probably added just because Iñárritu liked it as a stand-alone tale. Nevertheless, it managed to keep me fairly well engrossed for the whole of its slightly overlong duration.
This kind of film usually does well at award nomination time – it has been put up for Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars, neither of which it deserves to win, as well as Best Supporting Actress for both Barraza and Kikuchi, and, considering they are the least well known names of the principal cast, this is quite an interesting accolade. It is not as good as Iñárritu's previous two films, but has, like Crash last year, appealed to the moral sensibilities of the Academy despite not being that good a film. However, if you enjoy suffering through a grim and tough two and a half hours, this is worth seeing.