Alejandro González Iñárritu introduced himself to American audiences with his first English language film 21 Grams, starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benecio Del Toro. Iñárritu likes using the interweaving story technique, as he did in 21 Grams and in his 2000 hit Amores Perros. His latest ensemble piece Babel is no different.
This technique is hard to do well. You can’t just shoot a film, stitch the cuts into a random order, and say your movie has an interwoven story theme. There’s an art to it. And sometimes in Iñárritu’s case, it can appear more like madness.
In order for this technique to work, the film needs a central theme because the scenes need to be focused along a common idea, which requires intense planning and foresight. Why? Randomness is to be avoided, and any hint of it should be the viewer’s mistake, but the director’s.
Babel begins with a family living in mountains of a remote Moroccan village. The father buys a rifle from a friend, and lets his boys use it to guard the family’s goat herd. The boys go gun-crazy and decide to shoot at a tour bus. Tragedy strikes.
Susan (Cate Blanchett) is struck by the rifle’s bullet. Her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) is desperate to seek help, but the bus is miles from the nearest hospital. The bus drives to the nearest town. Calls to the American embassy don’t alleviate Richard’s fears for his wife’s safety. Nor does the town’s doctor, who happens to be a veterinarian.
Susan and Richard’s children Debbie and Mike didn’t travel with them to Morocco. They stayed in San Diego, California with their nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). Amelia is informed of Susan’s condition, and is to be relieved by Susan’s sister so that Amelia can attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. But that plan doesn’t work out, and Amelia must decide whether to stay with the kids or go to her son’s wedding. She compromises and brings the children along with the help of her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal).
The rifle’s original owner is a friend to a Japanese businessman Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho). Yasujiro has been raising his deaf daughter Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) by himself since his wife died. Chieko has a temper, but her father can’t seem to provide the right comfort. He is trying, though.
There are many themes that you could derive from Babel. The movie suggests the main theme is the effects that misunderstandings have in the world. If that’s the case, what misunderstanding did Susan have for being shot? The boys were dumb in deciding to shoot the rifle at a moving vehicle. If that’s the case, how did Amelia misunderstand Richard’s asking her to stay with the kids instead of going to her son’s wedding? She tried to use her best judgment, and it turned out to be a bad one.
The Chieko storyline would suggest the theme to be loneliness. Even though she has many good friends and a very caring father, her disability cuts her off from much of the world. She feels isolated from everything. Seeing the world is only one experience, and her empty heart instead blinds her from the important things.
It’s interesting how the shooting incident is major news to everyone but those directly connected to it. Amelia isn’t sympathetic to Richard’s request to stay with the kids while his wife is in critical condition. Amelia’s priority is her son’s wedding (and I would be remiss if I didn’t say a son’s wedding was an important event).
The fellow tourists who witnessed Susan getting shot couldn’t have cared less about her predicament. They complain about the heat, the villagers being “terrorists,” going back to the hotel to take medication (well, that’s important), etc. Did they not remember the woman was shot? Did they not see the blood? And yet they still drive away leaving Richard and Susan in the house of the town's lone Good Samaritan. The rest of the world is updated on Susan’s condition via special TV news bulletins.
The movie is filled with tension, constantly keeping you wondering about what will happen next. Will Susan survive? How did Chieko’s mother really die? How will Debbie and Mike like Mexico? Watching Babel reminded me of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Both films examine the need to fight human nature and do the right thing despite the constant leaning toward selfishness.
Nominated for the 2007 Oscar for Best Motion Picture, it was looked as the Academy Award’s 2007 social commentary film as Oscar winner Crash was in 2006. But that comparison, despite the obvious similarities, is unfair to both films. Crash needed to be forceful in its discussion on race, while Babel uses a more subtle approach in trying to approach human behavior and relationships.
A critical misstep that occurs in many films that comment on social issues is the filmmakers’ reluctance to make a point, choose a side, or provide consequences. Film is different than any other art form in its ability to offer perspective and choice. The beauty of Crash and Babel is that both films don’t leave you in the dark or paint pretty pictures. Life truly is a bitch.
Babel is reissued in a 2-Disc Collector’s Edition, and includes the 90-minute making-of documentary “Common Ground: Under Construction Notes.” The documentary chronicles the filming from beginning to end, encountering many problems along the way. Naturally, Iñárritu has the dominant point of view, with various producers, actors, and others contributing stories as well.
Iñárritu is comprehensive in relating the ideas he wanted to convey with the scenes he wrote. He’s constantly trying to delve deeper into the human experience. An interesting part is Iñárritu working with the two young boys, trying to motivate them into the emotional mindsets that they should have while shooting.
It’s interesting that during the volleyball scene, a majority of the volleyball players are actually deaf. It would have been easy to have only a few players be deaf, but Iñárritu knew it meant a lot to those involved (and not just for authenticity's sake). A funny story is the Japanese police threatening to shut down shooting if the film crew stopped traffic for more than one minute. On the flip side, the Mexican police had no problem delaying traffic into Mexico to give Iñárritu as much time as he needed.
The great thing about the shoot is Iñárritu’s insistence to use local residents for many parts. The biggest problem with that is translation. It’s not all that surprising given the film’s themes. Problematic for the crew, though. The mother in the village who helps take care of Susan doesn’t understand the crew’s translator so Iñárritu has to go through three people to convey direction to the woman.
The border scene is a very emotional shoot for Iñárritu. He’s known people who have died in the desert trying to cross, and it’s important that he gets it right. He’s a very emotional person and with his movies you can really feel what he feels. Babel is a very interesting film in how people relate to one another. Misunderstandings do occur, but the real issue is how people handle those misunderstandings and events that require them to choose: what’s best for you or for those around you?