Babel

Listen.

This is the first movie I’ve seen in a long time where I went in not having any idea what it was about. In recruiting my friends to see it – and I did a good job, as I was accompanied by nine of my comrades for this excursion – they demanded to know what it was about. I extrapolated, from the title and the poster, that it was an archaeological adventure about discovering the remnants of the Tower of Babel in the Middle East. The scary thing was that I explained this theory so many times that I came to believe it myself.

Babel is anything but that, though. It’s one of those ensemble movies that have become wildly popular since the advent of Crash. Loosely related stories are tied together into one movie, as was the case for everyone’s favourite unbalanced movie about LA racism. Behind Love Actually, Babel is my favourite example of this genre (although this stance may change if I were to rewatch Magnolia).

Babel seems to me a hard sell – despite its stellar cast, its dialogue is spread across five languages; Japan is represented in a style so accurate that many people will simply be confused; a lot of time is spent trying to figure out the precise details of the connections between the stories – but it’s worth the effort. All of the Golden Globe nominations, and therefore perhaps Academy Award nominations, will certainly help it along. I certainly believe that this film deserves a larger audience than Syriana, at any rate.

Oh, wait. I’ve digressed wildly and I haven’t even started the review yet. I apologise for that! Let’s get down to business.

In Morocco, a shepherd buys a rifle from his neighbour so that he may protect his goats from jackals. In San Diego, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a nanny, is forced to take her two charges across the border so that she may attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. Also in Morocco, Richard (Brad Pitt) and Sarah (Cate Blanchett) argue in a manner that suggests their marriage is close to over. Finally, in Japan, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute girl, is red carded from a volleyball game and then argues with her family.

Four countries and five languages may seem as if the stories would be hard to follow, but they’re each so expertly delineated – and edited well enough so that each encounter doesn’t seem too long or too short – that this would scarcely be a problem to any attentive viewer. How the stories are related are, 75% of the time, obvious enough. The other story is so tangential that, even when you’re told how it’s related, it seems almost out of place in the film. That the film ends on that story, then, makes it all the more strange. That it ends on that note is with good reason, however: it’s not always advisable to create a series of downers. Sometimes you have to end on an up, no matter how basic and naked that up is.

The performances are uniformly excellent, to the point that one of my comrades, Clara, was in tears for a large amount of the movie. If I had been in a slightly different place emotionally at the time, I’m almost certain that I would have lost it myself. As it stands, the tenderness between Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett is amazing, and the closest I was brought to tears was when Pitt was on the phone. If you had somehow forgotten that Pitt is a good actor, this movie will have no problems in reminding you of that fact.

The best thing about Babel is that it touches on the ideas of terrorism, American priorities, the looming “threat” of “wetbacks” and suicide, but it isn’t about any of these things. It is somehow bigger than any of that, and it is from this well that its power is drawn. Babel is about relationships or a lack thereof, and it threads its four stories through that incredibly wide and vague subject.

Two of the stories are characterised by stupid occurrences. These stupid things are not the result of natural coincidence, but rather through the fallibility and arrogance of human nature. The way in which these characters are written is such that one shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves simultaneously infuriated and sympathetic.
The scenes on the border suggest the terror that must be felt by even the most legitimate of border crossers. The people of Border Patrol are thoroughly lacking in empathy, but I suspect that the job would be soul crushing if you were too compassionate.
The excuse for the problems of the Moroccan story is the impetuousness of youth – because youth are indeed stupid and arrogant. At least they’ve got an excuse, and the whole experience is humbling.

To characterise the stories of Richard, Sarah and Chieko as powered by “stupidity” isn’t really fair. The central themes of these stories are emotional distance, impotence and frustration. Overcoming these sorts of issues can create an uplifting filmic experience, and that’s precisely what we get here. The tenderness that grows between Richard and Sarah as they face unimaginable hardship is powerful to watch and, during Chieko’s story, I spent a lot of time longing for Chieko to scream.
The outcome of that is most surprising and cathartic, and that is why the end of this film is so satisfactory.

The differences between these four stories – those controlled by stupidity and those controlled by frustration – is that stupidity is within human control but frustration all too often feels as if it is not. This is precisely why the film has two happy endings and two decidedly less-than-happy endings.

The level of emotional control exerted by Alejandro Gonález Iñárritu in his direction of this film is not entirely clear. There is certainly no easy objective way to measure it. My friend Casper thought that the music pushed him over the edge into depression, but my other friend Raymond declared that what he liked about the movie was that it didn’t tell him what to think: it only told him what was on the screen.
The shade of Iñárritu’s scanner is entirely at the discretion of the viewer, and this speaks volumes of the artistry that has gone into crafting this film. I’ll admit that it’s a film that I liked better in retrospect, as I was able to understand the piece as a whole. There’s an appeal to discovering precisely the links between everything, but I have the most distinct feeling that Babel is the sort of film that rewards repeat viewing. It’s great to know that, in Australia at least, the great movies keep on coming right to the end of the year.

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