Updated: Nov 9, 2019
Another piece originally written for my diploma course (in script development). Babel is a favourite of mine. Hopefully this will help explain why. Spoilers follow...
Babel is the third collaboration between screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu and the pair share credit for the idea which became Arriaga’s Oscar nominated screenplay. The film continues the multi-stranded approach to story-telling practiced in Amores Perros and 21 Grams, this time with four strands, taking place across three continents and in multiple languages:
In Morocco, a goat-herder acquires a hunting rifle for his sons, Yussef (13) and Ahmed (14), to help them protect against jackals. Bored of a long day in the hills watching the herd graze, the boys try their aim on a tourist coach passing in the valley below…
In California, Debbie (4) and Mike (5) are being looked after by their long-serving nanny Amelia, an immigrant from Mexico. Amelia learns that their parents’ return is to be delayed until after her son’s wedding across the border in Tijuana. Failing to find someone else to look after them, Amelia decides to take the children with her…
Richard and Susan are American tourists in Morocco, taking time out together to try and resuscitate their marriage after the loss of their youngest child. Travelling through the desert aboard their tour bus, Susan is critically wounded when a bullet comes through her window…
In Tokyo we follow Chieko, a deaf-mute girl frustrated by her inability to connect and communicate with the society around her. She yearns for affection, and for the romantic and sexual interest of attractive men…
Babel is the epic narrative of a whole world in turmoil because of difference, because of otherness, and the failure of communication. It surfaced at a time (little has changed) when it felt as though half the world was pitted against the other, nations, races and religious faiths swelling with fear and hate. Watching this film for the first time remains one of the most arresting cinema experiences I have had. It is an astonishing, visionary portrait of our world and time.
While the different settings, characters and events are all connected, the essential thematic link is disconnection, and disconnection rooted in otherness. This theme finds expression in almost innumerable forms throughout the narrative. It emerges on micro and macro levels - levels interpersonal, societal, global, historical and mythical. What we witness is a recurrent separation in understanding between people. Following the shooting, the American tourists are terrified of their situation in Anwar’s isolated Moroccan village. Meanwhile, as a result of a wider, international culture of fear – again, rooted in the idea of otherness – a diplomatic crisis is taking place. US and Moroccan authorities struggle to co-operate, the fact of which threatens to cost a woman her life, a husband his wife. Moreover, it threatens to take us further and further away from a point where a more enduring understanding can be achieved. The implications ripple outward. Yet these events are only indicative of something that is happening on a much larger scale, every day throughout the world, causing fear and pain. Division - it’s there in the confrontation between Santiago and the border guard, in Susan and Richard’s troubled marriage, and in Chieko’s desperate desire for love or the next best thing. In the story of the Tower of Babel, God, displeased with man’s hubris, came down from Heaven, confused their languages and scattered the people throughout the earth. Babel is the story of the consequences. For sheer scope there is little to rival it in cinema. Genuinely.
Babel illustrates, vividly, the pain and grief which result from this idea of otherness, but it also reflects an active attempt to deconstruct that idea. It focuses our gaze on ‘the other’ and makes it familiar – human, and not only non-threatening but often beautiful. The film opens on Morocco, on the home of an Arab/Islamic family. In the 21st century, post 9/11, the Islamic world has come to be associated with terrorism and Jihad. Foreign Muslims are seen (by many) as being on the other side of an irreconcilable conflict - a source of fear and enmity. But the dynamics of this family unit and the relationship between the two boys are drawn in such a way that any sense of the alien simply evaporates. The boys are boys – arguing, competitive, vulnerable. One of the key scenes or subplots in this respect is Yussef’s spying on his sister Zora as she undresses. Yussef’s most closely guarded and personal desires are revealed to us. It is highly intimate character knowledge.
Richard and Susan’s experience leads us into the most direct confrontation of this fear of the other. The tourists do not feel safe in Anwar’s village. They fear a ‘further’ terrorist attack and Susan doesn’t want to be treated by the village veterinarian. But enough trust and understanding are found, ultimately, to protect her fragile condition. For the US, Mexico, with its immediate border, is a more traditional centre of otherness. In Babel the idea of Mexico as a realm of ‘the other’, and a source of fear and enmity, is exploded.
There are two oases of uplifting emotion within the film. The first is the sequence depicting the Mexican marriage celebrations. A marriage is a union, a connecting of two people, and what we witness and participate in – throughout these scenes – is a celebration of human connectedness. The second oasis is located in the Tokyo nightclub Chieko visits for the first time with her friends.
INT. HALLWAY, NIGHTCLUB -- NIGHT
They enter. The music, the light, the crowd, it is almost hallucinatory. For Chieko, it is a silent concert of movement and chaos.
The key word is ‘concert’, defined as ‘Agreement in purpose, feeling, or action; Unity achieved by mutual communication of views, ideas, and opinions,’ or ‘a harmony of sounds, things, or persons.’ Here is the world moving and communicating in fluid understanding. It is a utopia, albeit fleeting and illusory. The moment is to some extent ecstasy-inspired, Chieko having popped pills with her friends earlier in the day. The high point of the Mexican wedding reception is evoked in almost exactly the same way.
EXT. HAMLET "LOS LOBOS" -- DAY
The band plays various Norteño songs. Everyone waits for the music to start. After a while a couple starts to timidly dance. Then another, and another, until the dance floor becomes a sway of heads moving to the same rhythm.
'A sway of heads moving to the same rhythm,' bodies in concert, connected.
Sexual desire is another aspect of human beings’ need for connection, for contact, and sex is (or can be) a realisation of that need - the establishment of the most intimate connection. This (as opposed to pure sexual gratification) is what Chieko is after. The scene in the nightclub finds her anticipating a sexual or love encounter with a boy she likes. She is, she believes, on the verge of an intimate connection. This experience ends abruptly when she sees the boy kissing a friend of hers.
Arriaga’s handling of Chieko is one of the most impressive features of the script. While the Tokyo strand has its mysteries – in the detectives’ unexplained interest in Chieko’s father, and the ambiguous cause of her mother’s death – it is more concerned with exploring the inner life of its protagonist and less dependent on the volatility of events than the other strands. In Chieko that exploration is profound. An ability to penetrate into and reproduce the inner life of characters is one of the most significant talents a writer can possess, particularly in this medium. In Babel, Arriaga demonstrates a finely tuned appreciation of an incredibly broad spectrum of emotions through a staggering spectrum of humanity. Its reach and its scope are quite astounding. Its immaculate structuring – to create a narrative so gripping – is a feat in itself. It has texture, ideas and vision, but it also has blood in its veins and ideological force. There is some active effect in pulling these disparate specimens of the human race together in the same film. It connects, even in revealing our disconnection and its consequences.
I think empathy is the quality or trait I value most. It is the most essential ingredient for a better world, and its want is the root cause of a vast proportion of human suffering. I think Babel somehow gets to that idea better than any other work of narrative art I have ever encountered, and it does so in a way that is visually so extraordinarily beautiful and moving. It has that visionary quality that I both thirst for and aspire to.
The graphic image which heads this post was created by Jethro Paler: jethropaler.com