Editor's Pick of the Month: BabelDiscover a film hand-picked by our team to inspire you in your journey as a filmmaker.
“Faith in cinema as a universal language could hardly be more evident.”
When I first saw Babel nine years ago, I didn’t grasp the subtleties of its interwoven storylines and nonlinear presentation. How the film worked was a mystery to me, but I felt it on a visceral level. Its images have haunted me for almost a decade: brothers bracing against the wind in a desert – a husband helping his injured wife use the bathroom – an intimate embrace atop a balcony overlooking Tokyo.
If you’d asked me to explain why the film resonated, I’d have tried to describe these moments but otherwise been at a loss. Revisiting the film now that I’m a little older and (hopefully) a little wiser has been a rewarding experience, as I’m able to articulate what my younger self felt.
Babel is the third installment in director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Death Trilogy”, preceded by his first feature film, Amores Perros, and 21 Grams. An international co-production, it was made for $25 million – a relatively modest sum that afforded Iñárritu final cut – and went on to realize more than $135 million worldwide. Babel swept Cannes, won The Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture (Drama), and received seven Academy Award nominations in 2006.
Over the course of the film’s 2.5 hours, four distinct stories unfold. In the deserts of Morocco, a hunting guide sells a rifle to his friend. This friend intends to use it to kill jackals attacking his goatherd, but instead, one of his sons accidentally shoots an American tourist. The tourist’s husband reroutes their tour bus to a remote town, where they must rely on the kindness of strangers while waiting for their government to send medical help.
Later, in San Diego, the tourists’ nanny decides to take their children to a wedding in Mexico, where they run into trouble along the border. While all of this is happening, a Japanese businessman in Tokyo – the former owner of the rifle – is trying to connect with his deaf-mute daughter, who’s desperate for attention in the wake of her mother’s suicide.
Babel’s fragmented, country-hopping structure sprawls, but the action is held together by narrative links, thematic points of contact, and Iñárritu’s fervent filmmaking. “[T]he voracious close-ups, the sweeping landscape shots, the swiveling, hurtling camera movements,” A.O. Scott observes in The New York Times, “suggest… a virtually limitless confidence in the power of the medium to make connections out of apparent discontinuities. [Iñárritu’s] faith in cinema as a universal language could hardly be more evident.”
The editing brings the film into focus by putting its puzzle pieces in conversation. Match cuts contrast children running from responsibility with children playing innocently, a bleeding chicken with a bleeding woman, the chaos of a shootout with the chaos of a wedding celebration. Elsewhere, smash cuts hurl us from storyline to storyline; I think especially of the transition from a gut-wrenching scream in Morocco to utter silence representing a deaf-mute girl’s perspective in Tokyo.
Ultimately, the associations suggest how removed people are from each other by distance, culture, and circumstance – appropriate, considering the film’s title alludes to the Biblical story of The Tower of Babel, which ends with humanity scattering across the face of the earth, divided and unable to communicate.
And yet, Babel is about the ties that bind us. It is an unabashedly emotional film about human needs that transcend any one language or way of life, our mutual dependence, and the shared experience of suffering.
Tragedy befalls us all. There are no heroes to save us from it or villains to rush us toward it. There is just a father who wants to protect his family and a policeman who wants to find a murderer, a husband who wants to save his wife and tourists who want to go home, a nanny who wants to attend her son’s wedding and border patrolmen who want to uphold the law, a father who wants to love his daughter and a daughter who craves contact. On and on the list goes, a chronicle of people and institutions with deep convictions based on limited knowledge that inform seemingly competing interests.
I suppose this is why Babel resonated with me all those years ago and continues to do so today: its stories and structure truthfully reflect the mess in which our world, with its many cultures and perspectives, is mired. Babel recognizes this complexity and accepts the inevitability of conflict and calamity without surrendering to them, and that is beautiful. Its fatalism does not discriminate, but neither does its radical empathy: “Now more than ever, we need to talk to each other,” Scorsese urges us, “to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.”
As Babel demonstrates, sometimes this means parting from convention if we want to communicate effectively. “Film is poisoned by narrative now,” Iñárritu told The Telegraph:
It’s become something that affects film in a big way, and it’s getting stuck… Everything [in the story] has to have some build-up, some justification, some plot trigger that explains things. It all has to be spelled out. What I try to do with the stories [in Babel] is different. They’re not really joined, but emotionally the same. I aim for more lyricism, metaphor, poetry. Without that, cinema is stuck. There are so many more things you can do in a 100-year-old art form.
Since Babel, Iñárritu has continued experimenting with Biutiful, nominated for two Academy Awards in 2011, and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography from a total of nine nominations at the 2015 Academy Awards. I for one am looking forward to his latest, The Revenant, in theatres next week.
What do you think? Have you seen Babel? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Babel is rated R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use.
Michael Koehler, with
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