The notion of the global village gets a stirring screen treatment in what came across to some as contrived coincidence in Babel. But detach yourself a little from the forced probabilities — the story really is a perversion of the six degrees of separation theory — and you’ll unearth a beautifully crafted humanist drama. Conceived by longtime collaborators Alejandro Gonzales Iñàrritu and Guillermo Arriaga (just don’t take either side’s story) Babel borrows from the Biblical fable of Babylon. Obviously, since it befits the errors in communication when disparate cultures meet. Here, four intersecting storylines take place in San Diego, Tijuana, the Moroccan desert, and Tokyo; far-flung locales that on one fateful day’s events showcase fleeting inseparability despite the enormity of space in between. Earth’s vastness is temporarily defied. The plot employs Murphy’s law striking two sides of that quadrangle, with a third caught in the crossfire.
The first two (San Diego & Tijuana) can be lumped into one, while the Moroccan chapter actually involves two distinct parts; Japan and the U.S.. The actors are an American couple (Pitt & Blanchet) vacationing in Morocco, with their children back home (San Diego) and their Mexican babysitter (Adriana Barraza). Her son’s wedding (Tijuana) is coming up that weekend. A shepherd and his family form another side, one half of the Morocco story—a money-strapped hunting guide who sells him a rifle is the other. That rifle, not quite a MacGuffin but a key apparatus no less, was a gift from a Japanese tourist. The Japanese hunter and his family make up the fourth segment. When the rifle changes hands, it triggers a butterfly effect across those locations and kicks everything into gear. Or most of everything since quite a bit occurs prior to that chronologically. And with everything told in a fragmented chronology, the before occurring later, and the after coming sooner, it’s a piece-it-together not so confusing like a Pulp Fiction. Here, the cause and effect is straightforward, unlike in Pulp Fiction where it genuinely feels like the plot was on loop. Have you ever been tempted to watch that one again right after it finished?
Babel, in its unraveling, unearths a thematically layered plot reminiscent of the terrace-like levels in a Ziggurat (of Babylon?). Stacked atop one another, the plot hints at metaphysical answers to an existential riddle; somewhere in every interaction is a plea to be loved back, or at the bare minimum, be lent a sympathetic ear. Even if you don’t subscribe to reaffirming and understanding, the tragic fallout from lack of said emotions is a call for pause.
Among the complex layers enveloping the film is that of children. Every family has at least one, the age of the baby sister’s son being the sole outlier. Though never intended as culprits, nor drivers, the children are either central to developments or catalysts of incidents. A neat thing is it never being about the children despite what is directly implied. Their involvement may only exist to symbolize the perpetuation of the very mistakes their respective villages will make again and again. As witnesses to their elders’ ways, what chance do they have of going their own way toward a better understanding?
The other obvious theme is the police… the governing arm of the state. Law enforcement features heavily, and is shown as different vis-a-vis the level of authority they have (in the first place) to abuse. The Japanese detective is straight-laced and least likely to be corrupt. The Border Patrol in the Tijuana chapter are dismissive and unfriendly toward vehicles with Mexican plates. The Moroccan police is outright vicious knowing their impunity. You get the pattern… But in the way they carry out their work, those provide another dimension to not just how poor communication plagues foreign cultures, but also within homogeneous settings.
Perhaps as a natural reaction to when authorities bear down with might, urgency of some sort spurs an executive decision everywhere. And those fight-or-flight type reflexes are often extreme and knee-jerk. Yet by skirting outlandish extremes, it makes Babel the thinking man’s Crash, and the decade’s maturer film on race relations. I refrain from the word cosmopolitan deliberately; Crash confines itself to a much smaller geo-social purlieu. But you will also find that misunderstandings rule the day here. As the film’s pathos, they play more into the overarching ethos of the film, its title reference; the communication breakdown between people.
The more striking moments in the film are rather mundane ones we might have had but here are depicted with a restrained exaggeration and refined depth that betrays their casual routineness. Leave it to the trade master to espouse subtlety when lesser craftsmen would resort to overt tactics. There is one scene during the border crossing back to the US that is needlessly exacerbated by the babysitter’s nephew, and what ensues can be described as superfluous development in any other film. It is somewhat typical how it unfolded yet also forgivable. But really why did it go down that way? Because he drank too much? They picked the wrong time of day to make the trip back? Or was it the lack of foresight altogether to bring the kids along? It doesn’t matter nearly as much as what triggers the events.
The Moroccan chapter packs the heaviest punch as we get an intimate look at the two tales at the epicenter of Babel’s quake. It also contains a most poignant scene as well as a plethora of revealing moments. In involving unrelated tour guides—one registered, the other unlicensed—the economic realities of developed versus third world countries as predator and prey is solemnly explored. No preachy words of caution to utter however; merely how things are.
Obviously, tourism and leisure everywhere are still founded on the toiled labor of a few to dote on the rich and many, to some degree. Walk into any service industry establishment and the patrons outnumber the workers. But when diplomatic relations are at stake, a simple accident takes on more than the sum of meager parts. My favorite scene is after Brad Pitt’s character is overcome with impotent rage while help won’t arrive, he is eventually overwhelmed with gratitude during their departure. While potentially offensive, a friendly embrace becomes sufficient however genuine the monetary reward was; the tour guide refuses to gain materially from his solidarity. Ultimately however, life is a zero sum game at times—elsewhere the fallout in Morocco is cataclysmic—and redemption gained one way comes with a great toll elsewhere. Hope comes in many forms it seems, somber is but one.
The Japanese hunter’s daughter (Rinko Kikuchi), I’ve read, features in the least developed segment. But probably because it smacked of first world problems that trivialize the misfortunes elsewhere. I found the critique too shallow a claim to hold water. It probably comes from the same people liable to scold you for being too insensitive to the blight of disability. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t? I suppose her segment is the lightning rod of criticism when the story shuffles between the shooting accident, the wedding, and her, well, uneventful day. It is not without some high caliber technical wizardry. I particularly enjoyed the deliberate stark relief of incredible cinematography in the dance club—yet more mundaneness amplified (and made important) by a nuanced craftsmanship. To the girl it was a big deal, and in her segment, a pivotal turn. Her frustrations at the lack of sexual advances among her peers up to now were dealt with a crafty (and lewd) rebelliousness that prove futile because of what she lacked all along; the faculty to hear and reciprocate speech.
This makes her a personification of the film’s underlying conflict, that of misunderstanding. Maybe we are disabled in some way as speakers of a different language. And it was all contextually conforming to the earlier shot compositions. Next, it unravels to the point at which the seams nearly come undone, as a detective comes looking for her father—a widower with a checkered past—except unbeknownst to her this time, it is concerning another case. The detective is well-intentioned to break the film’s cycle of misunderstandings in the end, but we are left with the real MacGuffin as regards his exchange with the girl. Redemption shouldn’t be beyond everyone’s means, Arriaga’s message implies. Babel is about reconciliation, though without excluding those that come at a great price, after an immense cost has been incurred. Therein is the tragedy of our human tendency.