In Mesopotamia — what is now Iraq — there used to exist a city named Babel. It was the Holy City of Babylonia. But in Christian mythology, its meaning is interpreted as “confusion” in reference to the Tower of Babel.
During the erection of the Tower of Babel, God saw the united people building this tower to reach the heavens as defiance to His greatness. The Biblical story tells that man is evil and rebellious by nature and the tower's construction was an act of ego, not an act of worship. As punishment, God confused the languages so the builders could no longer communicate; they stopped building and the people were scattered over the world. You could read into such a story that God is responsible for this screw-up the world finds itself in, but I digress.
In Babel, we find the same motif in three or four stories, depending on how you interpret it, closely linked together but spread out over the world. The story begins with two young brothers in the Moroccan desert, shooting the new family rifle at jackals and rocks, while herding goats. The older brother, trying to prove the rifle is a dud, fires at a tour bus when, in fact, he’s just a poor shot. The younger brother – who is a great shot – proves the rifle isn’t a dud. Thus begins the beautifully crafted tragedy about death and loneliness.
A couple on a retreat to mend their lives after the death of their child are on that bus. The wife, Susan, played by Cate Blanchett, who, with her pale visage, could easily appear in a Waterhouse painting, is hit in the shoulder by the bullet. As the bus stops, the boys, realizing what they have done, run for the hills — literally and figuratively.
A Mexican nanny in an upper-middle class home receives a call from the husband, Richard, played by Brad Pitt. She is forced to stay with the children, despite her son’s wedding the next day. Not able to find a sitter, she heads off to Mexico with the children to attend the wedding. Getting back into the U.S. with the children will prove disastrous.
A deaf-mute Japanese student is thrown out of a volleyball tournament for hand-gesturing/mouthing off to the referee. Her troubles run deep. As with all girls, she yearns to be noticed by boys, but her physical handicap creates social handicaps as well and pushes her to disruptive behavior. She also mourns the suicide of her mother and paddles through a murky relationship with her father.
All these seemingly disjointed stories unfold at the same time, over five days. And they are all intimately tied together despite being separated by great distance. And it is the unraveling of relationship, through the exploration of each story’s tragedy, that we come to understand something about ourselves — that we are truly alone without the ability to communicate, that we all hunger to connect with others, even for the briefest of moments, through a gaze, a caress, a word.
To serve the story properly, it presents humanity in its rawest form – within the limits of acceptability of mainstream cinema, though nothing of this movie is mainstream; whether it’s a young boy masturbating behind a rock after peeping at his sister changing clothes in the house or a young girl flashing her privates to boys at a local restaurant. The uncomfortable moments include a husband helping his wife urinate in a pan and children witnessing a chicken getting its head torn off. Some scenes are definitely not easy to watch for the prudish. The story openly deals with teenage sexuality, without begin overly explicit. It also depicts romance between older people, something not often seen in modern cinema. But it’s not attempting anything tasteless; instead, it exposes us in our intimate moments with dignity and shows us as the validation seekers we are. Validation gives our lives meaning, purpose.
Not only is the storytelling raw, though complex, so is the cinematography. There is very little make-up, only environmental lighting, and, of course, a gritty, grainy film quality. These features all come together to deliver the harshness of the tragic outcomes of all the stories. And let’s not omit mention of the beautiful score and music throughout the film. It is always perfect for the story’s locales and always lush and colorful.
The viewer must be open to reading subtitles for great deal of the movie, since most of the film’s dialogue is not English. We have Japanese, sign language, Berber, and Spanish thrown into the mix. There is also the examination of cultures we know little about, but which, in the end, are very much like ours; exposing us for the frauds we are in believing we are so very different, at the core, from our neighbors. Everyone seeks happiness in the end; nothing less, nothing more. And it’s what drives us to such desperate measures when we fail to capture it for ourselves. But I won’t lapse into a Buddhist discourse on the nature of suffering.
In the end, luminous story, exhaustive execution, surreal music and images, lessons to learn, and great acting — even by the non-actors — make for a fantastic experience and reinforces my belief that intelligent cinema is still possible in these bubble-gum flavored times. I won’t even rank it; it would demean the film, even if given the highest ranking. Babel transcends borders, languages, social taboos, and the mainstream.