Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Babel"

Speechless in the Age of Globalization

In his film "Babel," the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu links together the fates of characters from the most varied cultural backgrounds. Suspenseful narrative cinema, says Amin Farzanefar

Set in three locations on three continents:

​​With "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," Alejandro González Iñárritu had already developed his own unique cinematic style, which brilliantly links together the fates of various characters.

"Babel," the 43-year-old Mexican's latest film, is set in three locations on three different continents.

Ahmad and Yussef, two young Moroccan goatherds are handed a rifle and instructed to kill jackals. Instead, they shoot at a tourist bus and hit Susan, an American tourist.

In the USA, Amelia, a Mexican nanny, takes Debbie und Mike, the two children under her care, along with her to Mexico to attend her son's wedding. On the way back she encounters trouble at the border crossing.

And at the other end of the world, in Japan, Chieko, the deaf-mute daughter of the businessman Yasujiro, wanders through the neon glow of Tokyo. Her actions are driven by a sexual desperation caused by an inability to come to terms with the death of her mother.

Iñárritu gradually weaves these fragments into a dramatic whole with skillful, if not drastic, virtuosity.

An emotional rollercoaster

A veterinarian with crude tools sews up Susan's life-threatening wound. A clucking Mexican chicken has its head ripped off in the most brutal manner.

Fearing for the life of his wife – Brad Pitt as an American tourist in Morocco

​​Such shocking moments are somehow less upsetting than those scenes in which Iñárritu augments the level of dramatic tension to catastrophic heights, and then abruptly brings the pace to a standstill by changing locations, sending the audience and the main characters on a new emotional rollercoaster ride.

This is high-tension, ambitious narrative cinema, in which regional actors and amateurs are given roles on a par with international stars. "Babel" was justifiably awarded the "Golden Palm" at Cannes and currently enjoys a handful of Oscar nominations. Babel has been nominated for seven Golden Globes Awards this year. The film offers proof that auteur filmmakers don't necessarily have to lose their souls in Hollywood.

Incompatible worlds

The underlying message of the film however is difficult to fathom. The central Old Testament image of the Tower of Babel as a massive technical project that ultimately leads to a breakdown in communications is adapted to present day circumstances.

The episodes and protagonists in "Babel" are connected by the amenities, technologies, and strategies of modern-day life, yet no real exchange ever takes place between them. Tourism whisks people away to far-off lands of which they possess no knowledge, the media turns the "attack" on Susan into a crisis, globalization results in a Japanese rifle wreaking havoc in Morocco, and so on.

"Babel" highlights one of the truisms cited by critics of globalization – colliding worlds are rarely compatible. The film's montage likewise corresponds to the clash of perspectives and mentalities.

Susan warns her husband Richard in Morocco not to put ice cubes in his Coke, because one never knows "what is in it." The scene of the necessary detour made by the tourist bus to the small village of Tazarine emphasizes the prejudices of its passengers. They don't trust the Moroccan ambulance and prefer to wait for the American helicopter.

Iñárritu contrasts this concern the US government exhibits for its citizens with the ruthless manner in which the Moroccan authorities deal with its citizens.

They are often none too gentle in their efforts to remove the suspicion that their country harbors a burgeoning international terrorist movement. "There are no Islamists in Morocco" is a statement that carries with it serious undertones in the autocratic state.

The theme of borders

Iñárritu films in countries in which he has traveled himself – Morocco, Mexico, and Japan – with a plethora of detail almost more fitting for a documentary. The concrete images always refer to something general at the same time. In particular, "Babel" tends to approach current world events from the point of view of borders.

The deaf-mute Chieko (Rinku Kikuchi) has not come to terms with the death of her mother

​​Here we have the blinkered view of the west on the Middle East and how tourism manages to mask out whole realities and circumstances. It also deals with the way the American-Mexican border is drawn alongside a system of social Apartheid.

The episode in Japan is probably the film' s most intimate. It deals with the theme of distance and how it can be insurmountable despite close physical proximity. The deaf-mute Chieko, who wanders through the artificially illuminated backdrop of Tokyo, is also a symbol for the isolation of modern man.

"Babel" – a tour de force through global misery – manages to avoid becoming a gloomy film thanks to its focus on small gestures and on meaningful brief glances, such as when Richard bids farewell to his Moroccan driver and host who had looked after his wife's welfare, or when, in the darkest of nights, Chieko finally manages to find an understanding soul.

With this grandiose spectacle of a world in need of redemption, Iñárritu reveals himself to be a great moralist. The viewer may not necessarily fully share his position that everything in this world is somehow connected. Yet, his method of considering at once both the large and the small, the political and the private, is of timeless urgency.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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