Babel: Of Riddles And Lives

“It’s the Ideas and Perceptions We Have That Keep Us Apart”


Director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu on the Morrocan set of Babel with Brad Pitt, who plays Cate Blanchett‘s husband | Photo: Paramount Pictures

Babel, which opened in Austria in December 22, is a portrait of apparent randomness. In this Oscar nominated modern retelling of the Biblical myth by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, nothing seems to make much sense: four disconnected stories where languages and cultures overlap and collide, yet in which hope for redemption is never lost.

“I think the [riddle of] language can be very easy to break,” director Alejandro González said in an interview after winning the Cannes award for Best Director.

“The problem is the ideas and preconceptions that we have that really keep us apart.”

So the breakdown of languages is only the beginning as the story evolves from total incomprehension to the resolution of hearing each other despite the language barriers.

In this modern version of Babel, Susan and Richard, an American couple played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, take a trip to Morocco following the loss of their baby, leaving their two children with Amelia, a Mexican nanny. Idyllic enough until Susan is accidentally hit by a bullet fired by a young boy who was playing “aim” with his brother. Their father had recently purchased the weapon from another man who was a hunting guide for a Japanese.

Back in Tokyo, the Japanese has problems of his own with his rebellious deaf daughter Chieko. In the meantime, Amelia goes to her son’s wedding across the border (in Tijuana), and takes the children with her. On the way back, her rowdy nephew Santiago  gets into trouble with the border patrol and dumps her and the kids in the middle of the desert.

The four stories are interwoven by unfortunate casualties and decisions that seem innocent but have disastrous consequences. Why did they make such ill-fated choices?

In each case, the problems stem from the characters’ use of the language of “I” instead of the language of “us.” They are trapped listening only to themselves, without hearing the reality of others.

Susan wanted to talk about their son’s death, but Richard refused, locked up in his grief and drifting away from her. When she gets shot, the news spreads like wildfire and the authorities assume terrorists are behind the attack. Which seems to be what everyone assumes nowadays.

Tragedy also strikes other characters through, at least in part, a reluctance to hear each other. When the Mexican nanny tried to explain she has to take the children across the border because they have no one else to take care of them, the border guard does not even attempt to understand her broken English.

Another trooper ignores her plea to go back to the desert and look for them, asking instead if she is an illegal immigrant. The characters learn their lesson only in the end through cathartic close encounters with death, providing a rare and bittersweet resolution, uncommon for the work of Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga.

Babel seems to provide an alternative interpretation to the destruction of the Biblical tower. The single language that Yahvé condemned because humanity wanted to build a shortcut to heaven is not the cause of this kind of “continental drift” between cultures. Instead, it was the ambition of one group of voices to topple the others, a desperate attempt to return to the origin through assimilation.

The problem is everybody claimed to be the departing point. So, cross-cultural miscommunication is not the lack of a single language, it is the belief that communication across languages is impossible because one voice or language is stronger than the others.

The story of the Japanese girl is the key to this new way of looking at the tragedy of language. Paradoxically, she is the character who screams the loudest through her actions.  But it is precisely the language of silence which reinforces the insight that the multiplicity of languages is not the real barrier.

If she, who cannot speak and be listened to, can overcome the barriers of language and express her pain to a man who has nothing to do with her life (the police investigating the gun her father gave to a hunter in Morroco), why can’t the others do so as well?

“I want this film to be basically about what separates us and what brings us together” said Inarritu, “the borders within our souls: our preconceptions of our fathers, the archetypes we have from religions, races, cultures.”

Inarritu, 43, was born in Mexico City and currently lives in Los Angeles. He leaped suddenly into the world’s spotlight after the movie Love is a Bitch in 2000 and 21 Grams in 2003. Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga has worked side by side with Inarritu, from the birth of the idea to the genesis of the script.

Their skill at weaving together the scenes and destinies of their characters becomes smoother with each film. In Love is a Bitch, for example, there where three main stories linked by the coincidence of a car accident set in Mexico City. But each story had an unequal span of time to develop, making one of the stories of the cinematographic triptych too difficult to digest.

Babel may not be the peak of their editing and screenwriting skills, as they will probably get dozens of offers after winning the 2007 award for Best Film in the Golden Globes Awards on January 15. But they have improved their ability to do long movies without exhausting the audience, holding their attention through short tension-building snapshots of the unfolding story.

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