Babel: A Failure to Communicate

IF YOU WANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD… LISTEN. 

The pattern here is obvious. This is director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s third feature film and it has a similar structure to Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). He and writer Guillermo Arriaga come up with a couple of ideas, themes they’d like to explore, put it all on paper, then probably start over again by tearing their stories up in little pieces and putting them together again, sometimes in a nonlinear fashion. It’s a nifty way of telling a story, if you’re clever enough to make it work, and Babel shows just how clever the duo is becoming.

The word “babel” is Hebrew and the Book of Genesis interprets it as “confusion”. That’s the overriding theme of the film. Four global stories are told. An American couple, Richard and Susan Jones (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett), are vacationing in the Moroccan desert, but they spend most of the time avoiding talking about the pain and sorrow in their relationship; they have two small children, but recently lost their infant son. While traveling in a tourist bus, Susan is suddenly shot in the neck and taken to a village in the desert. As Richard fights for his wife’s life, the U.S. government blames the act on terrorists and starts negotiations with the Moroccan government on using their airspace for a helicopter to get Susan out of the remote village. But it wasn’t an act of terrorism; Susan was shot by a boy called Yussef who was foolishly trying to see if his father’s hunting rifle could reach the bus in the distance. The incident is all over the news, but Yussef and his brother are too scared to tell their father the truth, until the police finds a shell casing and starts looking for the owner of that type of rifle.

Meanwhile, the Jones’s two kids are watched by Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a housekeeper who has been with the family for several years. Her son is about to get married in her native country, Mexico, but because of what has happened in Morocco Amelia can’t leave San Diego for the wedding. She decides to take the children with her to Mexico without the parents knowing. The wedding is a glorious feast, but when she tries to cross the border back into the U.S. she runs into trouble.

In Japan, meanwhile, we get to know a deaf schoolgirl called Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) whose mother killed herself by jumping out from a balcony. She’s a fairly normal teenager who’s starting to show interest in boys, but her handicap makes it hard for her to communicate with them. She’s not exactly close with her father and she feels lonely and desperate for attention. The story may at first seem not related to the others, but it is.

Symbolism aplenty
People talk to each other throughout the film, but they don’t get through. This is a problem on every level; tourists who visit another country don’t speak the foreign language, governments misunderstand each other, the Moroccan police can’t even begin to think that perhaps the shooting was not committed by a cold-blooded killer. Even people who have known each other for many years fail to understand what the other is saying. There’s symbolism aplenty.

Director Iñárritu offers no solutions to these problems, but he points at them and wants us to listen and learn. The cast is first-rate; Barraza and Kikuchi totally dominate their stories.

It’s a moving experience, with no preaching, even though Iñárritu touches on political issues. He simply gives us these situations and it’s up to us to discuss them and the characters’ motivations. Unlike these people, we’re in a comfortable situation to calmly make the right decisions and judge those who can’t.

Babel 2006-U.S.-Mexico. 142 min. Color. Produced by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Steve Golin, Jon Kilik. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Screenplay: Guillermo Arriaga. Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto. Music: Gustavo Santaolalla. Cast: Brad Pitt (Richard Jones), Cate Blanchett (Susan Jones), Gael García Bernal (Santiago), Kôji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi.

Oscar: Best Original Score. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Drama). BAFTA: Best Music. Cannes: Best Director.

Last word: “I think that ‘Babel’ […] are four stories that are never connected physically. They never see the face of each other; the actors met once at Cannes. But they are emotionally connected, so my job was to find the right visual language to make four stories that apparently should not have physical connections form a whole. That was the experiment, which was very different from the other two. But formally it’s four stories that have to do with one another. The reason that I call it a trilogy is because they are about parents and children; thematically, it’s more important for me why they are a trilogy than formally.” (Iñárritu, IGN)

 

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