Film Review: Babel (2006)

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)
Alejandro González Iñárritu is one of my favorite directors alive today. His 2000 masterpiece, Amores Perros, is a stunning work of cinematic genius worthy of the greatest filmmakers in history—a group in which I expect we will someday number Iñárritu. The fact that it was also his first major film only makes his achievement all that more impressive. Amores Perros demonstrated that he, like Paul Thomas Anderson, has a gift for composing grand narratives which integrate disparate stories into a single discursive epic. His second film, and first in English, was the overlooked 21 Grams, in which he experimented with nonlinear time progression and more subtle camera work. He rarely showed the action itself, and instead showed the characters before and after the pivotal events. By confusing our perception of time and limiting our vision, Iñárritu captured a truly human perspective in 21 Grams, full of distortion and fallible judgments.

In his first two films, Iñárritu revealed that he is most comfortable working with an ensemble cast in films that paint elaborate and interwoven tapestries about universal human experiences. Amores Perros is about love and redemption—the price of love and the cost of redemption. The translated title says it all: “Love is a bitch.” 21 Grams is about loss and the pain of death. Once again, the title is quite suggestive: 21 grams is the weight of a human soul after death, according to ancient thinking. Now, in Babel, Iñárritu offers us another riveting tapestry on a much grander scale. His first two films took place in specific locales and simply brought together characters who lived near each other. Babel is his first truly international film, bringing together four different nations—Morocco, Japan, Mexico, and the United States—in a story that explores the theme of cultural-linguistic diversity and the difficulty of finding common ground and mutual understanding. Once again, the title says it all.

Babel is a film about difference, misunderstanding, and confusion. The main characters include an American couple, Richard and Susan, vacationing in Morocco (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), two Moroccan boys, a Japanese deaf-mute girl, two American children who are watched by a Mexican housekeeper, and the nephew of this housekeeper (Gael Garcia Bernal). The movie begins when the vacationing wife (Blanchett) is suddenly hit by a bullet while riding in a tour bus. The husband is then thrust into a world without reason, without sympathy, without understanding. Dealing with a tragedy in a foreign country is hard enough, but things only worsen when the other English-speaking tourists fail to demonstrate empathy and mutual concern. From the start, we know that the bullet comes from a gun owned by the father of the two Moroccan boys, the youngest of whom showed off his excellent aim by shooting at the bus while the two of them were tending the sheep. Meanwhile, the two American children are taken away to Mexico without their parents’ permission for the wedding of the housekeeper’s son. And in Japan, the young deaf-mute girl pursues recognition and love at all costs while grappling with the recent loss of her mother.

Iñárritu brings these stories together in ways that some may find contrived but which nevertheless tell a coherent and profound story. At the heart of this whole narrative is the gun. The shotgun ties all the stories together in ways that are deeply suggestive. In a world in which people are barred from mutual understanding through vast linguistic and cultural divisions—that is, in a world post-Babel—some things speak clearly to all people. One of those globally intelligible “languages” is the language of violence. A gun communicates effectively to any person, regardless of cultural differences. In other words, the one truly universal language is death. But the language of a gun is not positive but negative; it communicates by killing. Violence constructs meaning by destroying it; violence connects people by irrevocably dividing them. Herein lies its attractiveness. The one who exercises violence against another person shapes the world according to his or her design. The exercise of violence is thus powerful, effective, and final—and in a world in which most people experience powerlessness and contingency, even outright oppression, such power is deeply desirable.

Since we live in a world of such great confusion, the temptation to master such seemingly insurmountable differences through the hegemonizing and homogenizing power of violence is one that faces us continually. Deep within us there resides the universal urge toward building a modern Babel. We desperately want a project through which we will secure meaning and identity, through which we may transcend the vicissitudes of our temporal existence. Such projects abound all around us: economic gain, political power, imperial domination, military success, globalization, celebrity fame, academic accolades, familial legacies. Babels are continually being built all around us. Our society swarms with attempts to reach the heavens, to make names for ourselves. Yet the failure to achieve a lasting, communal tower has led to the pursuit of individual towers all with the same goal in mind: divinity.

The gun is thus a symbol for more than just occasional violence and human mistakes; it is the embodiment of our human pursuit of self-deification, the perpetual search for omnipotence and cosmic control of our destiny. Karl Barth had another word for this, which in connection with the gun makes for even more suggestive possibilities: religion. To place Barth and Iñárritu in dialogue, we might say the gun is symbolic of the sinful religious impulse to be master of our own lives. In this context, Babel has much to say to a church embroiled in the nexus of violence under the pretense of religious devotion.

It is not accidental, then, that the climax of the film occurs when the young Moroccan boy smashes the gun into pieces. His act of surrender and the breaking of the gun demonstrate a relinquishment of the pseudo-religious pursuit of self-aggrandizement. The destruction of the gun is the renunciation of Religion. Thus we come to the most profound element of this grand but all-too-human story: the post-Babel condition of diversity and difference that gives rise to our attempts at hegemonic control is the very same condition which proves to be our salvation. Here Iñárritu proves himself to be a very able interpreter of Scripture, even if unintentionally. For we find that the divine act of linguistic confusion in Genesis 11 is not a curse but a blessing. In the aetiological legend of the Tower of Babel, Scripture forces us to grapple with the grace of mutual otherness. We are not sovereign monads but beings-in-relation. We live as relational creatures who foolishly seek to master our surroundings, because we fail to grasp the depth of fulfillment that comes from living with and for others, rather than for ourselves. The Christian faith has always affirmed that we are not our own, and this is true not only of our relation to God but also of our relation to other creatures.

Thus the breaking of the gun is a rejection of our rejection of the Other. In the midst of seemingly insurmountable differences, the characters in the film, for the most part, experience the depth of truly human communication—that is, communication which celebrates our diversity rather than the kind of false intercourse which only subjugates and silences the myriad voices for the sake of one’s own voice. In other words, the characters in Babel discover the depth of dialogical relations with others. Such dialogical self-disclosure originates in the divine self-disclosure of the Word—particularly the Word made flesh—and finds its proper human correspondence in love. Thus, dialogical relationality is not strictly related to words spoken or written; rather true human dialogue depends upon effective word-signs which communicate through any number of possible forms.

For the deaf-mute Japanese girl, whose entire linguistic world is non-verbal, such communication occurs not in the use of sign language but rather in the embrace of a stranger who responds to her emotional plight. For Richard, the American husband who receives life-giving help from a Moroccan stranger, such communication occurs in the final chaotic seconds before he steps aboard the helicopter heading for the nearest hospital. As he reaches out his hand to pay for the services received, the Moroccan man silently and firmly rejects the money. Their hands connect and one thing is overwhelmingly clear: when humans exist in interdependence and dialogical relationality, life triumphs over death, love triumphs over hate, and self-giving triumphs over the economic expectations related to “goods and services.” The Other is no longer subjugated and excluded, but rather affirmed and embraced.

Babel is a rich and deeply provocative film whose complex narratives seem surprisingly familiar despite their cultural particularity. If nothing else, the film illustrates just how similar we all are, in spite of the myriad differences separating individuals, tribes, ethnicities, and nations. Our common human pursuit of Babel is itself a kind of bond uniting us together, as is our common human failure to transcend our creaturely finitude. Thus, in the end, we are bound together most profoundly by our need for one another. We are human in that we live together, with others, in relation to what exists outside of ourselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus described the ecclesial community as “life together,” a life given by God and shared with others. And it is this particular being-in-relation—affirming the dialectical tension between similarity and otherness without collapsing one into the other—which the Christian tradition understands as the unique being of the church. The church is both universal and particular, both encompassing of all times and places and simultaneously located in particular times and places.

Without becoming distracted by ecclesiology, let me suggest that Babel may be most profound in its largely successful attempt to explicate the nature of our relationality such that both sides of this existential dialectic are equally embraced. In Christian theology, what unites this dialectic is the Holy Spirit, or as William Cavanaugh suggests, the Eucharist. As the embodied locus of Word and Spirit in the community, as the singularly effective word-sign given to the church, the Eucharist is the rejection of Babel which at the same time unites people together and places them before God (coram Deo). Perhaps Babel may best be interpreted sacramentally; its stories communicate both the experience, the loss, and the rediscovery of sacramental communion. Just as the sacraments in the church unite disparate persons through the mystery of grace, so too the story of Babel is a narrative about estranged persons who discover “life together” through mysterious encounters—whether in the silent understanding between two persons who speak no common language or in a moment of peace in the wake of senseless violence or in the gentle embrace of a man who senses loneliness within the heart of a young woman. Throughout its different stories, Babel is a penetrating examination of our human condition: both marred by miscommunication and the pursuit of self-divinization, but also marked by beautiful moments of self-giving love in which the mystery of life triumphs over the horrors of death.


Patrik said…
I'm glad you got so much out of this film... I though it was a complete waste of time. I was annoyed with Pitt and Blanchett, because faces like that are out of place anywhere, and by the weird racism of the Mexico story (I realize his Mexican himself, but still- that has to be one of the most clichéd descriptions of Mexicans and Mexican culture ever to be filmed. The same goes for the Japanese part, also extremely shallow and unmotivated. Nothing that happens in that sequence makes sense, it is only a sequence of things that are meant to shock or disgust. And the Marocko story is the most cliché of all with its obvious intolerant Europeans / tolerant Muslims theme. Who is provoked by that? Only someone who actually believes that all Muslims are terrorists. But that crowd isn't likely to go see this anyway.

Hasn't Hollywood tried to copy Magnolia enough times already? This was one of the most pointless attempts (see also: Crash). Just because you tell three different but loosely connected stories in the same film it doesn't mean its deep and meaningful.

Thank God there are indie films. Hollywood should stick to making films for kids.

(Yes, I feel better now, thank you ;) )

Nice review, though.
I'm sorry you got so little out of it. I obviously don't share any of your criticisms. I actually think a comparison between Crash and Babel illuminates the differences rather starkly. Crash was a waste precisely in the way it manipulated emotions (most noticeable in the way it makes you think for a moment that the child was shot). Babel certainly has far-fetched scenarios, but I do not think it manipulates the audience the way Crash did. Certainly, Babel is no Magnolia -- few films ever are or even could be.

The criticism that Babel offers clichéd depictions of the various cultures is a little odd. What film ever avoids this? The very nature of the medium prevents it from ever depicting cultures in anything other than stereotypes. Moreover, its especially interesting that we seem to have reached the point where filmmakers are stuck in a bind: if you present Europeans as tolerant and Muslims as intolerant, then you are only reinforcing the stereotypes that perpetrate oppression; if you present Europeans as intolerant and Muslims as tolerant, then apparently (according to you, Patrik) you are simply offering a cliché. For my part, I think that Iñarritu avoids both oversimplifications: sure, the European tourists are intolerant, but of fellow Europeans; Pitt's character is neither tolerant nor intolerant, but he ends up making a real connection with the family that tends to his wife; and the Moroccans are much more complex than you make them out to be.

It seems in the end that you've distorted the film by oversimplifying the complexities that it is trying very hard to capture. Ironically, you are forcing the film to be more clichéd than it actually is. And it also seems as if you've missed the entire theme of the film, viz. communication and its barriers. Certainly, any film that actually wrestles with the communication difficulties of a deaf Japanese women (my grandmother is a deaf Japanese woman, so I know) cannot be so easily labelled "cliché."

I guess I just feel sorry for you. You're missing out on a great film.
Anonymous said…
Hmmm, interesting review, and interesting exchange here. I haven't seen "Babel" (or "Apocalypto" -- I actually hardly watch any movies) but your talk of the motif of the gun in "Babel" reminded me of a quote from the Irish essayist and critic, Nicholas Fagan. It runs as follows:

The space between the perceiver and the thing perceived... can be closed with a shout of recognition. One form of a shout is a shot. Nothing so completely verifies our perception of a thing as our killing of it.

(I first came upon that quote in The Wars, by Timothy Findley. That book captures some of the realities of violence in ways that I have very rarely seen in film -- although, like I said, I don't watch a lot of films.)

Grace and peace.
Excellent quote. That definitely resonates with the film. Thanks for that, Dan.
Patrik said…
Well, I would not like to agree that all film can do is offer stereotypes, but I agree that that is most often the case. Which is why it is not often I see a film that really touches me these days. But to compare, consider Syriana that also dealt with the lack of communication between the west and the Muslim world. It did not offer a cliché of the to-be-terrorists but actually showed them to be very human. I actually ended up identifying very strongly with these characters, something that truly is provoking me to this day. Babel offered only a kind of nihilistic "bad things happen" concept.

The point is that to get away from clichés you have to show the human beings. There was one character in Babel that I liked, the guide in Marocko, he felt real. The others were IMO very flat simple characters with little or no complexity.

The other interesting thing was Pitt's character's tendency to solve problems with violence. (when the other tourists won't behave as he likes them to) But this is a cliché about Americans, isn't it?

You're right, I think, to point out that the characters are somewhat flatter than one would like. I certainly don't think they are nearly as flat as a large majority of films these days. Babel's characters are flat in comparison to truly great films. For example, Amores Perros (Iñárritu's first film) is a masterpiece of cinema; it accomplishes with near perfection what Babel seeks to do.

But while Amores Perros and Magnolia are certainly more successful as films, Babel accomplishes an impressive feat, considering that its story is international. Babel had a very difficult feat; it's much easier when all your characters are in a single location as in those other two films. So if the characters come off as flat, I think it can only really be in comparison to truly great films. There is plenty of complexity in Babel, just not as much, perhaps, as you would like (or are willing to acknowledge).
byron smith said…
Great review of a film that I also found a little disappointing, but only because I was expecting so much after Amores Perros & 21 Grams. I still think it is a good film (agreeing more with DWC than Patrik). Yes, the characters are (relatively) flat and I felt there was a little more redundancy than his earlier films. Nonetheless, as your review demonstrates, it was a great concept, even if the execution left something to be desired. I found the trailer really got me (this also contributed to the high expectations).