It is really unfortunate that Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is clearly a talented director, still sells himself short. Ever since 2000’s Amores Perros, the film which granted him international notoriety, he has been working with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga within a very closed formula of sorts: accidents having dire consequences on the lives of people involved, even if by the most tangential way.
Both Amores Perros and 21 Grams have car accidents whose causes and consequences are explored in this manner, interconnecting the stories for maximum dramatic effect. By now it is startingly clear that is as far as Arriaga and Iñárritu wish to develop their projects. In Babel, they have attempted to use this model in a global scale, but the result fails in delivering any sense of purpose (or lack of, even) or resonance.
In the Moroccan desert, kids play with a rifle and end up wounding an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) in a bus. Her husband (Brad Pitt) tries desperately to get help while back in California, the couple’s children are taken to Mexico by their Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) for her son’s wedding. On the other side of the globe, a deaf Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) struggles with sexual frustration.
There isn’t very much going on in terms of plot (or even character, more on that on a bit), the three or four stories are clearly intended to be meditating on the problem of communication between cultures. When you think of what could have been done with such an ambitious premise, Babel is not only very tame but also very shallow. Arriaga and Iñárritu are a great deal more interested in how the stories are connected, apparently to show how everyone is worlds apart from each other. The connections are as random as one would expect in real life, but the truth is, it really doesn’t matter whether the rifle once belonged to a Japanese hunter who happens to be the father of our deaf teenager. Learning that does not enhance our understanding of any of the stories, nor does it comment in any meaningful way on problems of communication or solipsism. For instance, I expect that my sneakers were probably made by an underpaid worker in Indonesia, and whether this hypothetical man’s wife is dying of cancer or not, I cannot care: it is only a pair of sneakers, and people die of cancer regardless. And this is as significant as any connection in Babel.
So instead we are given a handful of characters who are not only very unidimensional (one can barely remember their names) but correspond to racist stereotypes, something also reflected in terms of cinematography and production design: Tokyo is streamlined and glossy and their inhabitants cold and distant. Mexico is dirty and messy, and Mexicans are dirty, dumb, and like to play pulling heads of chickens. The American couple is rich and good-looking (no wonder they’re played by none other than Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett). The Moroccan family is equally astonished that their kid shot a woman and spies on his naked sister, and so on.
If this is a critique or not, we cannot be sure. Babel propounds to be highly moral and serious (the title alone being enough indication), and instead of presenting randomness, confusion, and ambiguity as the ultimate comment on human communication (isn’t that how the bit about the Tower of Babel in Bible goes?), we get lowly stereotypes and a heavy-handed use of literary technique, as the stories are interconnected but fail to build upon the other. If Babel is saying that there is a message, what is it?
This is a very far cry from Robert Altman and Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts, where stories were interconnected but every single one of those sets of characters were fully developed and their position in a web of personal relations were equally important. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia goes in the same direction. Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown goes the opposite way, where characters are less important than the haphazard way their lives intermingle. In Haneke’s film, however, we do not fully learn exactly how they do so, and their full consequences. It seems to me that this is a more realistic approach, as we ourselves do not fully comprehend how our lives are affected by others and vice-versa. The promise of communication between people and cultures is difficult and even impossible. I believe Iñárritu and Arriaga’s project was to somehow be cynical as Code Unknown but striving for the emotional weight of a work such as Magnolia. While this may seem antithetical at first, in my opinion Altman’s Short Cuts achieves a fine balance between these two modes.
A final note: Babel could have been a great miniseries. Iñárritu’s filmmaking style is very TV-driven. If we take apart each of the four stories, they would be of a length approximate of a one-hour drama episode (40 minutes). Each of the episodes would be a story from one part of the globe and still retain the interconnectedness, but one wouldn’t have to be constantly reminded of them. It would be left to the viewer to make connections between episodes. I believe this would achieve a much subtler effect. It would not solve much of the stereotyping issue, but one has only to remember that TV is all about stereotypes anyway.
Things to read:
- “The New Disorder”, article by David Denby in The New Yorker