by Alejandro González Iñárritu
“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” — Genesis 11:4–9 (The Tower of Babel)
Being lost in a place that doesn’t understand you, especially when you are in desperate need of someone’s help, is not easy. It is a fear that relates to most of everyone and in 2006’s Babel by the formidably talented Alejandro González Iñárritu do we see four different storylines take place on three different continents dealing with four different yet very similar things, all tied together by one Japanese firearm that has made its way into the sand-laden lands of Morocco.
The events of the film are kicked off when a Moroccan man named Hassan Ibrahim (Abdelkader Bara), the first man we see own the Japanese rifle, sells it to a local goatherder named Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) along with ammunition. Initially intended for chasing coyotes away from Abdullah’s goats, the rifle ends up in the hands of his children Yousef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani); Ahmed being the older troublemaker and Yousef being the younger one who’s experiencing funny feelings brought on by puberty. They use the gun for some target practice and range tests, but it’s not all fun and games. At one point they aim the gun at a passing tour bus, not expecting to hit it. They do. And not shortly thereafter do the news reach them that an American tourist has been shot, allegedly by terrorists. Their father won’t be pleased, they gather.
The victim of said shooting is identified as the paranoid Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett) and her difficult wound leaves her and her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) stranded in a Moroccan village with scarce medical assistance, alongside helpful tour guide Anwar (Mohamed Akhzam) and increasingly impatient tourists that want to proceed on their own, leaving the couple behind. Richard also makes a phone call to the family’s Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), and tells her she needs to watch over their children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) for a longer period than planned, meaning she’ll be forced to stay in America and miss her own son’s wedding, which is to be held in Mexico.
Unable to find a babysitter and unwilling to cancel her plans, Amelia simply brings the children along with her across the border, her charismatic nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) being the driver. This doesn’t go as well as she’d hoped.
There’s one more story in the film, this one set in Tokyo, Japan. We meet Chieko Wataya (Rinko Kikuchi), the sexually frustrated deaf-mute daughter of the businessman (Kōji Yakusho) who first gave the rifle to Hassan. Her inability to understand and be understood in return has made her lonely and difficult to socialize with. Not all of those around her know her sign language and she can only understand those whose lips she can read. All she wants is to have as much fun as her party-prone friend who gets all the boys (Yuko Murata).
She makes multiple attempts to make new friends in local clubs and seduce men she finds attractive, including the detective (Satoshi Nikaido) who eventually confronts her father about the firearm in Morocco having been traced back to him. This plotline feels like it has the least to do with the Morocco shooting arc, but it is still the best one in the film as well as the one that makes the most sense to be in a film called Babel. Some sources claim that this story was added to the film well into the production and even if it’s somewhat apparent, it was for the better.
But difficulties in communication is not the only element of realism that Babel does right. There are no villains in the film, nor are there heroes. There’s only the border policeman (Clifton Collins Jr.) who stops Santiago and Amelia from crossing because of what’s mostly a misunderstanding, but one that makes sense. There’s only two kids who mess up, never intending for anyone to get hurt. There’s only a group of tourists who will fall ill or pass out if they’re forced to wait for their wounded companion to get healed much longer. Some of these characters are jerks, yes, but you can understand their side of the situation. It feels like you’re watching real people as they would behave, should events like these take place.
It helps that the film contains mostly first-rate performances. Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi were both nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2007 and it isn’t difficult to see why; they both deliver excellent performances. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are also good and it’s nice to see that they don’t look as polished and dandy as big Hollywood names usually look when being filmed. They both look aged and a little bit dirty and this strengthens the feeling that you’re watching a real pair of ordinary tourists, even when it’s obvious that they’re played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Also great are the Moroccan actors, unknown to Hollywood and possibly unknown in their homeland as well. Perhaps this is the only time they’ve been in a film?
The stories are interchanged in a way that gives you enough time to immerse in one before you start wanting to know what’s happening in another. They also come in an order that’s maintained throughout most of the film’s 2 and a half hour runtime. First it’s 5 or so minutes of the Morocco storyline, then it’s 5 minutes of the Mexico/USA storyline, then it’s 5 minutes of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, then it’s 5 minutes of the Japan storyline, repeat. It makes for a wonderful movie that will hopefully be seen by many, not to mention understood.
“Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. In caseth ’twas not clear that God hath always been kind of a jerketh.” — Genesis 11:4–9