In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, all the people of the earth lived in one place and spoke one language. They formed a great civilization and thus they felt that they were as good as God. So, aspiring to be divine themselves, they began building a colossal tower that would reach heaven and God. God didn’t take too kindly to this kind of arrogance so the people of Babel were made to speak different languages. Thus, people were no longer able to communicate with each other and construction of the tower ceased. Thereafter, people spread out all over the world, forming nations and tribes with those they could communicate with.
Babel, the movie, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga, is a meditation on the difficulty and tragedy of intercultural communication. The movie is filmed in English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Berber and Sign Language, with bits of French. Since I watched a Japanese version of the DVD there were no English subtitles. I watched the movie only able to understand the English. Having grown up in Southern California I was able to pick up some of the Spanish and living in Japan now I was able to catch smatterings of the Japanese. But otherwise, it truly was Babel to me.
Yet, it didn’t matter. I was able to understand the general meanings of what the characters were saying and follow the narrative fairly closely. After the movie, I checked online for a synopsis to make sure my perception was true and it surprisingly was close to what I “heard”.
The film is set in four countries: Japan, Morocco, Mexico and the U.S. And it involves the story of four intertwined stories. Previous Iñárritu/Arriaga movies also followed this conceit, with events and choices made by one character affecting another and so on. Babel is the least focused of these of films. Amores Perros, the first of their trilogy, is a tightly wound cinematic masterpiece set in Mexico City. 21 Grams is an excruciatingly cathartic follow-up. Babel though just as challenging and finely crafted, is just not as satisfying. The Japanese story, though mesmerizing, is the most tangential, while the other three story lines abrasively cleaved to each other.
Like their other films, Babel’s narrative jumps back and forth in time and only by the end does the viewer comprehend the timeline, the choices and the consequences.
The story can be followed through a Winchester rifle. It was given by a Japanese hunter/tourist to his guide in Morocco. Then it was sold to another Moroccan family of goat herders. It was accidentally fired by one of the sons, hitting an American tourist. Because of the medical emergency, the American’s children back in San Diego had to be taken care of longer than expected by their Mexican nanny. However, the nanny has to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico, so she takes the children over the border.
Each choice leads to both tragedy and redemption. But it’s mostly tragedy for the Moroccans and the Mexicans, and redemption for the Americans and the Japanese. The American couple grow closer through their harrowing experience, and the Japanese father and daughter learn to grieve together. Meanwhile, the Mexican nanny, soulfully played by Adriana Barraza, loses her livelihood and home, while the Moroccan family loses a son. Perhaps this is a parable on how bad choices disproportionately effect people from developing countries, while those of us in the developed countries are more insulated.
Even with such heavyweights as Brad Pitt and my favorite actress, the ethereal Cate Blanchett, the lesser known performers stole the show. Both Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi, who played the deaf Japanese schoolgirl were nominated for many awards. (Click on the picture on the right for an interesting article on how these two actresses first met, since they never met during the filming.) But the actors who played the Moroccan father and his two sons were also compelling.
I was troubled by what I felt was unneeded nudity by Kikuchi. At times I felt I was watching some cheesy fantasy stereotype of a horny Japanese schoolgirl trapped in a scene from Basic Instinct. Much to her credit, Kikuchi portrayed the character as a complex teenager who was struggling with her sense of low self-worth and how it was enmeshed in her emerging sexuality. One could argue that the nudity and overt sexuality was necessary to convey her vulnerability. But Kikuchi did a fine job of doing that with just the expressions on her face. If anything the casual titillation distracted away from the emotional force of the performance.
I can’t say I fully recommend the movie. It’s not a comfortable moviegoing experience. Although it was a valiant attempt to expand the trilogy onto a global scale, for a casual moviegoer, you’re better off with Amores Perros.