Judge Erich Asperschlager once built a tower to heaven out of sofa cushions. It was awesome.
If You Want to be Understood…Listen
The lives of four groups of people intersect in the Alejandro G. Iñárritu Best Picture nominee Babel—a personal film that explores what it takes to overcome those things that keep people apart (language, borders, culture, prejudice).
Beautifully and poetically shot, this powerful film (which completes the trilogy Iñárritu began with Amores Perros and 21 Grams) provides a window into the lives of strangers who affect each other in ways they may never realize. Their stories unfold slowly, letting us draw our own conclusions and confront our own prejudices.
Facts of the Case
Four stories revolve around a single gun: A Moroccan man sells a rifle to a neighboring family of goatherds, whose two young boys play a game of one-upmanship that ends in tragedy; a vacationing American couple, trying to salvage a marriage strained after the death of a child, are forced to trust inhabitants of a small village with their lives; unable to find someone to fill in for her on short notice, a Mexican nanny chooses to take her two young charges across the border rather than miss her son's wedding; and a rebellious deaf-mute Japanese teenager struggles with acceptance after the death of her mother.
The event around which the film turns is the accidental shooting of Susan, an American tourist (Cate Blanchett, The Aviator), who is in Morocco with her husband, Richard (Brad Pitt, Fight Club). Pitt and Blanchett are "stars" of the film only in an American marketing sense. They may be the most recognizable faces (to a U.S. audience, at least), but they hardly dominate the story. Their performances are all the more impressive because they don't upstage the surrounding cast of mostly unknowns. Pitt (made to look more ragged than rugged), especially, flexes acting muscles I didn't know he had.
Though the film isn't heavy-handed in its reference to the current political climate, Iñárritu uses the Americans' story to address current issues. The shooting is immediately assumed to have been a terrorist attack—an assumption that complicates rather than helps. When we see and hear the media coverage, kept mostly in the background, it seems intrusive and simplistic compared to the reality of the situation. It highlights the unfortunate reality that the plight of the wealthy (especially if they happen to be Americans) draws more attention than that of the poor.
Set in the director's home country of Mexico, the story of Richard's and Susan's children and their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza, Amores Perros), feels looser, and more joyous, than the others—using the wedding celebration as an example of people in union. It challenges fears about illegal immigration by showing a cross-border trip through the eyes of children, who, though they begin by parroting their parents' concerns that "Mexico is dangerous," prove more able than the film's adults to accept new cultural surroundings. Perhaps in part because they've spent so much of their lives under Amelia's care, they settle in and enjoy the wedding celebration. It's this joy that makes the final act—and the consequences of actions taken by Amelia's hot-headed nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal, Y Tu Mamá También)—so heartbreaking. The story also has one of the film's most memorable scenes (and probably the best example of "culture shock"), which finds the laughing children joining their Mexican peers in a game to see who can catch a chicken the fastest—a contest that ends with the bird's head being torn off its body as part of preparations for the wedding feast.
Despite the problems they face in the film, the American children are at least afforded the first-world luxury of having a childhood. The poor Moroccan brothers who commit the film's central crime are too busy helping their family survive. They have adult responsibilities, including using their father's gun to protect the family goats from jackals. When the younger boy shoots at the distant bus, it's out of curiosity, not hatred. To these boys, the gun is a toy. As the ensuing investigation heats up, spurred on by American pressure to eliminate the assumed "terrorist threat," the game turns deadly serious, and they learn that life doesn't always give you a second chance.
The final story, set in Tokyo, is furthest removed from the others (compared to the dry and dusty landscapes that dominate the film, Japan looks like something out of the future). It plays an important thematic role in the film, however, showing you don't have to cross borders to feel alienated. As the deaf-mute Chieko, Rinko Kikuchi (Taga Tameni) gives one of the film's strongest performances. Like the other families in the film, Chieko's has been fractured by tragedy—in this case, her mother's suicide. Lashing out at her father and self-conscious around even her deaf friends, she feels the only way to connect and find affection is to use the one thing she knows will be taken if offered: her body. Playing a believable disabled character must be daunting for any actor. That I wasn't sure until the bonus documentary whether Kikuchi was able to speak or hear in real life is a testament to her ability.
The sound design of this film is amazing. Iñárritu uses everything at his disposal to communicate the feeling of being unable to communicate. He uses a full range of sound—the deafening roar of a big-city disco; wind whipping across a desert landscape; even the complete silence of Chieko's world. Like the story of the tower for which this film was named, characters speak lots of languages. Rather than being afraid of using subtitles, Iñárritu embraces them—not out of necessity but as an artistic choice. The dialogue is backed up by an eclectic soundtrack as varied as the people, cultures, and languages in the film: from J-Pop, to Moroccan folk, to Mexican hip-hop—all of which comes through in a capable 5.1 surround mix.
The set's lone special feature is the 85-minute documentary/video diary, "Common Ground," which is narrated primarily by the director (speaking in subtitled Spanish). Unlike most DVD extras, which take a fire-hose approach—with endless deleted scenes, repetitious commentaries, and the like—this feature manages to be as interesting and artfully done as the film it supports. Though it follows loosely the progression of filming, it has an organic feel, mixing philosophy about human interconnectedness with nuts-and-bolts production footage. Iñárritu talks not only with the actors, but with locals, translators, and crew members. Some of his philosophies are a little too "airy" for my taste, but those whose Myers-Briggs results skew more towards "F" than "T" might better appreciate them. Considering all the language and cultural barriers that we're shown needed to be overcome, it's a wonder the film got made at all. In this modern era of CGI blockbusters, it's easy to take an accomplishment like Babel for granted.
Babel is not a political thriller. It's not a Brad Pitt movie. It's a wonderful film that moves at its own pace—the pace of real life. As a distillation of human conflicts in a global society, it's challenging and sometimes difficult to watch—what happens to the characters is tragic and often senseless. What makes this film more than a reflection of all the bad in the world, though, is Iñárritu's underlying message of hope: that just as we have the ability to harm and ignore, we can choose to reach out, to connect—no matter what language we speak.
Though it might better be judged by a world court, I say not guilty.
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• "Common Ground: Under Construction Notes"
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