Make no mistake, “Babel” is a monumental achievement, a remarkable cinematic experience that is breathtaking in its scope, overwhelming in the physical beauty of the cinematography and rife with mesmerizing performances. Yet somehow the film ends up as less than the sum of its parts.

Unlike the director’s previous effort, “21 Grams” – a small story that far exceeded its reach and devastated with its power and raw emotion – “Babel” confronts a massively huge arena, addressing nearly every hot issue of the day, from terrorism and family relationships, to suicide, loneliness, police abuse, racial insensitivity, immigration and more. And while each of the four connected stories possess undeniable urgency and poignancy, the nexus between them – in particular the Japanese story – seem somewhat contrived. Life is full of circumstances – one action always affects another outcome – so merely noting these connections doesn’t make them profound.

That said, “Babel” far outstrips most films you’ll see this season, guided by the unbridled creativity of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose steady hand and expansive vision are visible in every frame. In a recent post-screening Q&A, Iñárritu proved funny, charming and remarkably elucidative in what is his second language, a true poet of both words and pictures.

Here’s excerpts of the on-stage session and a few one-on-one questions.

On differences in language and culture among the crew: “It was very close to the subject matter of the film – we had seven languages. It was a mess, really really difficult. In the beginning I wanted to kill everybody. But you have to survive. The difficult thing is not the language – this film is not about language…. We were always trying to think about borders as some physical space that we construct, like the fence they would construct between Mexico and the United States. (But) the real border lines are the ones that are within ourselves – the world of ideas. Those are the most dangerous, the most difficult to break down because you have preconceptions, prejudices, stereotypes. You have been filled with ideas that are damaging from religion, government, media, parents, cultural traditions. All these stereotypes make us see others as different and dangerous. That’s when you find yourself alienated.”

On using non-actors: “Ninety-nine percent of the people in Morocco are non-actors, all of them beyond Cate [Blanchett] and Brad [Pitt].… All that mystery of acting fell down…. These people who are real beautiful humans, you cannot get better, they (give you) real texture…. The same in Mexico, the (guests) at the Mexican wedding are living there, and in Japan, all the girls are real deaf Japanese teenagers. I could not betray that.”

On what he learned making the film: “One year ago, it was very different. In traveling and being exposed to such dramatic experiences – not only me, but for all the people that made it, and the film itself – (we all) transformed. I started doing a film about differences between human beings and I ended up doing one about what brings us together…. I experienced a lot of compassion making it, and that’s what I felt when I saw it, too. When we criticize and make judgments, we’ve completely lost that ability to break down those barriers of communication and cross border lines. I learned that myself. I was often cynical and pessimistic, now I’m much more hopeful. And I realize how connected we really are.

On the recent success of Mexican directors: “I don’t think of myself as a Mexican director. I’m a human being. When I was born I was naked, and somebody put a stamp on me and said, ‘He’s Mexican.’ But I don’t think in those terms of nationality.”

On “Babel’s” Oscars chances: “I try not to think about it because you can always be disappointed. Awards should be a consequence of the work but not an objective, because then you’ve already lost. I had so many problems on this film, confronted so many challenges – which I don’t like to talk about because I hate to victimize myself – but I was physically very badly affected, and I thought I would never finish. So that’s already my reward.”

Master of His Domain

Santa Barbara International Film Festival artistic director Roger Durling called just hours after the last MJ issue hit the stands featuring my questioning of Will Smith as the next recipient of the festival’s Modern Master Award. “I love when people criticize my choices,” he says, “because it gives me a chance to prove them wrong.”

Smith, Durling says, gives “the performance of the year” in the forthcoming film “The Pursuit of Happyness,” but beyond that would have qualified anyway.

“The man produces his own films, acts, writes the music,” Durling says. “Besides, the emphasis over the last few years in choosing a Modern Master is on modern, not master. I want all ages to come to the film festival, so we pick people who cross over generationally, and he’s certainly on par with George Clooney, Leo DiCaprio and Peter Jackson. They attract sponsors, the media and lots of people and that lets you do the serious stuff you want to do. One feeds the other. You’ll see the film lover side when we announce the other honorees.”

Stay tuned: two more recipients will be revealed this week.

Meanwhile, despite the last-minute cancellation of the fall benefit preview of “Stranger the Fiction,” Durling says the 2007 festival is on solid footing.

“Financially, we’re pretty strong because pass sales are going great,” he confers. “We have so many guests, we’re ahead of the ball already this year.”

Sleight of Hand

If the two recent magic-related period films have left you, ahem, disillusioned, help is on the way. For my money, “The Illusionist” is a more successful movie than Christopher Nolan’s gimmick-laden “The Prestige,” but neither can compare with the real thing: magician David Copperfield. We’re not – pardon me for the spoiler – clowning around when we tell you that the elusive illusionist is returning to the Arlington Theatre for two shows on February 28.