Everyone is a Stranger to Someone: the film Babel, and the International Scene

By Daniel Garrett

Writer: Guillermo Arriaga 
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
Production Designer: Brigitte Broch
Editors: Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione
Featured Actors: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal
Paramount, 2006

Babel (2006), written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is not the first film to focus on the international scene, not the first film to show us people of different ages, classes, ethnicities, and genders, not the first to demonstrate that despite unique languages and great distances of experience and space we manage yet to affect each other’s lives in important ways, but I think it is an exemplary film—excellent in many ways—and the kind of film that may be exactly what we need now. It is—like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) and Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005)—a film that helps us to understand a complex world. So many times artists are blamed for not bringing their audiences significant knowledge; but in certain cases artists do bring the necessary knowledge and it is refused. I hope that is not the case with the better international films we are lucky to see. In Babel, an American couple, Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett) visit Morocco, for time alone to help them get over the death of a young child. Meanwhile, at their home in America, a Mexican housekeeper and nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza) takes care of Richard and Susan’s other two children and awaits their return so that she might attend her son’s wedding with her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal), who will drive her. The nanny’s plans are delayed when Susan suffers a thoughtless accident, occasioned by the mishandling of a gun left in the care of two young boy herders by their father, a gun that was a gift of gratitude to a poor neighbor and local guide from a visiting Japanese hunter, Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho) with a lonely deaf daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), and sold by the poor guide to the boys’ father out of necessity. Babel is a collection of stories, but, as I began to suggest, it is also a series of interlocked ideas about the importance of remembering that other minds, other people, and other countries exist, with their own perceptions, experiences, ideas, and values; the importance of allowing for the unknown and uncontrollable, and of trying to meet them with humility, intelligence, and sensitivity; and the importance of recognizing one’s influence on others.

For Americans who often pretend that what happens in the United States is all that is important, a film such as Babel is a wake-up call, one that speaks in a new language, with a new tone. The film shows how money and poverty, health and illness, youth and age, male and female, pale skin and colored share the same world; and the personal has social implications. For me, Babel is one of the most beautiful and moving films of the last year, of any year. I think that some of the most important and true works of art have mystery at their core—mystery of human existence, mystery of the energy that propels life, mystery of language’s creative resources, and even mystery of aesthetic purpose: the important matters are not simple, are not completely disclosed or understood. Those kinds of mysteries are allowed in Babel; and that means that we are required to bring more intelligence, patience, and understanding than we are used to doing—in cinema, in life.

Babel has good photography, suitable pacing—as quick and as slow as it needs to be, and believable situations and settings, with movement from one narrative to another being very effective: and, consequently, the influence of one set of factors on another has a logic that does not strike me as far-fetched or unlikely. In the narrative focusing on the Americans Richard and Susan, we see the fragility of a relationship, how uncontrollable nature (the death of a child) throws human order (marriage) into doubt, the distrust of foreign culture (Susan distrusts the water) and habits (after being injured, Susan does not want to be tended by locals), violence (a bullet through a bus window that hit Susan, and caused her injury), and human disorder’s effects—in fear, in cruelty (the bus passengers Richard and Susan were traveling with have less concern for Susan than for their own safety), and surprising generosity (Susan’s care is ambiguous—we are not sure if she is being treated callously or well but come to see that the locals are doing the best they can).

In the narrative of the Mexican nanny Amelia, there is a sentimentality—concern for her own family and the children in her care—that tries to reconcile everything, that tries to observe and not betray any of her responsibilities and what happens shows the tension between those responsibilities. Amelia’s nephew Santiago drives her with the children in her charge to Mexico for her son’s wedding. Santiago is impulsive, proud, and wrong, especially when he is antagonized by the border police—and he runs away from the situation, causing Amelia and the children and himself more trouble. The arrogance of impersonal authority—that of the border guards, well-intentioned though they may be—can play havoc with a man’s insecurity and pride, especially when he’s too familiar with such behavior and has little authority of his own with which to fight. Santiago’s actions—first driving Amelia to the wedding, then running from the border crossing—brings Amelia joy then pain and remorse (it is always good to see Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays Amelia’s nephew, and the actress playing Amelia, Adriana Barraza, gives a flawless performance).

The Moroccans are the “others”: they are people living a simple life, and their faces—rough, lined—can seem ugly at first, but there is so much experience in those faces that they begin to be beautiful. The Moroccans have on their side (and working against them) poverty, need, and the influence of outsiders. A gift (the gun) brings trouble. The misplaced trust of parents is also part of this narrative (a father trusting children with the gun; and not seeing how the isolation of their lives might affect the children’s developing sexuality—a brother watches his sister undress and she does not mind—and lead to immorality). Yet, the father is a figure of decency and dignity. Modern technologies without modern consciousness may be what we are seeing.

In the father and daughter story, that of the sophisticated Japanese man and hunter, whose wife has died, and whose daughter seems to be acting out her anger and loneliness through sexuality—with boys (when she exposes her private parts), with a dentist (whose hand she places between her thighs) and with an inquiring detective whom she, unbidden, undresses for. The deaf daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), has a despair heavier and older than her years; and the actress playing her is quite good. Observing the girl wander through a dance club—a site of youth, of pleasure, of possible romance—and not be able to hear the purpose of the place, the music, is a good symbol of the girl’s plight.

There remains a division between silence and sound, between intentions and words, and between words and action: What can language do? What can people do? Such simple and resonant questions are the ones the film leaves us with, and it is a film that Todd McCarthy, who predicted a diversity of responses to the film, in Variety (online, May 23, 2006) called Babel an “ambitious epic of anxiety,” a film that builds “dread and emotional tension” in its exploration of “philosophical aspirations.” In the film, after the boy’s shooting off the gun leads to Susan’s injury, the shooting is thought to be, by some, a terrorist attack, a conclusion that draws on the worst of the contemporary political situation. Todd McCarthy, who wrote after seeing the film at Cannes, said in print, “And so it goes, as the filmmakers continue layering urgent distress, irrational behavior, bad luck, misunderstandings, frustrations, erroneous media reports, zealous security responses and downright dumb headedness to shape a tale that despairs at the state of human relations even in the absence of bad intentions or outright evil on the part of anyone involved.”

Babel is about the difficulty of human communication, but although the stories unfold in four countries and in five languages—English, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese and sign—language is far from the principal barrier. Instead, the film explores the ways in which cultural assumptions and biases tend to obscure reality even when reality is plain, and the way our perceived differences keep us from finding a human connection to one other,” wrote Carina Chocano, in her Los Angeles Times commentary (October 27, 2006) upon the film’s American release. I always think it is fascinating—and frustrating—to hear languages one cannot speak: it forces us to understand how other people required to converse in English must feel. One of the things we feel is a loss of authority. It is even more disturbing how often we act as if human differences are absolute rather than relative: such an interpretation allows us to exile people from human community, allows us to be cruel without conscience.

Not for the first time, one of the testimonies to a film’s power has been provided by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, who look at films aesthetically and spiritually: and they said that Babel “engages the senses, startles the mind, and engenders within our consciousness an appreciation for small acts of kindness and compassion in a world filled with hatred, violence, confusion, dread, suffering and loss” (Spirituality and Practice, October 2006). The Brussats do not pretend that film is only entertainment, that it has nothing important to say about our choices, about how we live our lives. The Brussats also quote the director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, at Cannes, and I repeat part of that quotation: “I think as human beings, what makes us happy is very different; it depends on cultures or races. What makes us sad and miserable is exactly what we share, and that thing is basically the impossibility of love, the impossibility to be touched by love, the impossibility to touch with love and express it. That is one of the most painful things that every human being has experienced, as well as feeling vulnerable to love.” The Brussats, who think Babel is a film to see more than once, say that Babel shows the effects of the wasting of love.

Critic Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune (November 2, 2006) found the film powerful but sometimes hard to believe; and while Time magazine’s Richard Schickel, in an article available online on October 22, 2006, had recognized its power, Schickel thought the film might be accepted or rejected depending on how its ambitions were interpreted (and some have compared it—mistakenly, I think—to the Paul Haggis film Crash, for the nature of the interrelationships in it); and Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Gate and Chronicle, November 3, called the film an experiment that fizzled, with the connections the film gives us lacking inevitability. (It is the inevitability of the many connections in Crash that one objects to, while the accidents in Babel are more believable to me.) Film reviewer Mick LaSalle finds the shifts in subject and tone from one narrative to another to be a problem, though for me, those resemble our different lives and concerns. As I like the film, I prefer to dwell on the approving conclusions. “The beauty of this film is in its lapidary details, which sparkle with feeling and surprise. Gonzalez Inarritu and Arriaga, both Mexican (Gonzalez Inarritu now resides with his family in the United States), are particularly attuned to the vulnerability of the foreigner abroad—whether that vulnerability is real or imagined,” Carina Chocano had written in her Los Angeles Times review. The film’s moments—lifelike, lucid—are similar to those given us by Abbas Kiarostami, I think: some of them seem stumbled on rather than created. On the technical aspects of the filmmaking Variety’s Todd McCarthy concluded, “Production contributions are excellent, with Rodrigo Prieto’s rugged lensing at one with the mostly barren landscapes, Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise’s editing adroitly intertwining the narrative threads and Gustavo Santaolalla’s grave, inventively arranged original score supplementing numerous tunes on the soundtrack.”

Of course, one wants more than agreement from aesthetic or cultural criticism: one wants insight, but a film such as Babel challenges our expectations and some of our critical equipment. I might say that I want to see an examination of love and knowledge in film, but be unable to recognize them when they appear in unexpected places and ways. In Babel, Richard’s love for his wife leads him to disregard her wish—her crying, screaming wish—that a local man not tend her wound, by crudely stitching it, though that tending does dim blood loss and give them more time to get her to a hospital. Susan, who distrusts the locals, is given a pipe to smoke by the wrinkled old woman watching her, and what is in the pipe dulls Susan’s pain and allows her to sleep, suggesting an empathy and knowledge Susan did not imagine. Meanwhile the Mexican mother and nanny’s love counts for little when official authority questions her legal status in America and her responsibility for the children in her care. We see the limits of the power of personal perspective before the law, a sad knowledge, but common knowledge for poor immigrants. These illuminations have much to do with the way we live now, with the state of the world: and, each of us, at one time or another, is a stranger. Human difference can be an enrichment rather than a factor that exhausts and isolates us. If we are open, if we are intelligent, if we are accepting, we can learn from human difference, though the possibility is not assured. Certainly, I think the world is a more honest and hopeful place for having works such as Babel in it.

Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.