Babel (2006)

Babel first published by EyeforFilm

Forming the last in a loose trilogy of films made by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Babel follows their signature formula, offering multiple narratives that ripple and sprawl out of a single violent incident. And while it may lack the energetic freshness of their earlier Amores Perros (2000), and be less wildly experimental in its chronological structure than their 21 Grams(2003), Babel is unquestionably the pair’s most ambitious project, spanning three continents in its quest for what binds, and what divides, the human race.

In Morocco, two young brothers (Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani) test the range of a tourist’s hunting rifle by firing upon a distant bus – with unintended, tragic consequences both at home and abroad. Also in Morocco, a grieving, guilt-ridden American husband and wife (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett) are driven by a horrific accident to re-evaluate their lives. In America, a domestic maid (Adriana Barraza) is forced to take her two young ‘gringo’ wards (Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble) with her over the border in order to be able to attend her own son’s wedding in Mexico – only for things to go badly wrong when her hot-headed nephew (Gael García Bernal) goes way over the line on the return trip. And in Japan, a teenaged deaf-mute girl (Rinko Kikuchi), still grieving the death of her mother and unable to communicate with her father (Koji Yakusho), undergoes a disturbed sexual awakening.

According to the Old Testament, God spread different languages amongst men to prevent them from co-operating in their construction of a tower in Babel that would rival the heights of heaven. And so, in keeping with its title, Babel features a polyphony of languages (Arabic, English, Spanish, Japanese – even Japanese sign language) to create barriers as much as conduits to the understanding of and between characters who often struggle to express their feelings even in their own language.

With its flawless ensemble performances and moving human dramas, Iñárritu’s film is an affecting examination of disconnected lives in an interconnected world. Like Syriana (2006) before it, Babel constantly shifts between domestic and international perspectives, and so it effaces any easy distinction between the personal and the political, portraying both the breakdown of the family and the failure of globalisation as two aspects of the same basic human urge to erect borders between ourselves, whether geographical or emotional.

Yet Babel is also an exercise in building bridges, using its nation-hopping vantage to reveal the invisible connections and common traits that define humankind as a coherent species, regardless of race, class or tongue. Sure, the shooting incident that ties Arriaga’s narrative threads together is really just an artificial MacGuffin, but it affords a kaleidoscopic view of people very different, yet all united by sadness, desire and the need to belong. Meanwhile, of course, the film’s production itself is a vivid illustration of how it is still possible for a cast and crew from different linguistic communities to collaborate successfully on their own new Babel. For while this is a bleak film, it is not without hope – even if the “happy ending” mentioned near the film’s close will for most viewers smack more of the bittersweet than of the saccharine.

Amid its many subtitled languages, Babel is also saturated with cinematic cross-talk, full of allusions to the films of Iñárritu, Arriaga and others. It evokes Amores Perros with the prominent presence of two of its leads, Bernal and Barraza (once again playing Mexicans from the same family); it has a looping time-line reminiscent of 21 Grams; and it shares with Tommy Lee Jones’ Arriaga-scripted debut Three Burials (2005) a focus on the US border with Mexico, and a key scene coupling masturbation with gunfire. There are also references to films as far-flung as Tony Scott’s Man On Fire (Dakota Fanning’s sister being chauffeured round Mexico City), Marina de Van’s Under The Skin (grief confronted through transgressive sexual behaviour) and Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (a private message delivered in Tokyo whose contents are left undisclosed to the viewer). All of which makes Babel Iñárritu’s most postmodern film to date, matching the varied languages of the world’s nations to the equally varied languages of the world’s cinema – but such intricacy of texture in no way diminishes the film’s power to touch viewers with its raw emotional impact.

In short, Babel is superbly crafted melodrama for the new millennium.

© Anton Bitel