Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006)
Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu's third feature film, is probably his most ambitious. The title is derived from the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which was struck down by God thus, separating humanity from each other through language. Iñárritu's film is set in three continents (Africa, Asia and America), riddled with more than five languages, juggles four different plotlines; it's the typical recipe for a cataclysmic cinematic mess.
The four different plotlines are threaded together by the most confabulated of connections. The generous act of a Japanese man (Kôji Yakusho) of giving a shotgun to a Moroccan hunt guide ripples into what seems like a global-scale tragedy involving an American tourist being shot by a stray bullet, a Moroccan family being faced with the pressure of an unexpected dilemma, a Mexican nanny suffering the brash exclusivity of the United States of America. Surprisingly, the plot that seems to be most disconnected from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's manipulations rings with the most resonating emotional depth; the introspective tale of a deaf-mute Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who can never connect with anybody in a satisfying emotional level.
While Babel still insists in the atypical narrative style ushered by Iñárritu and Arriaga's tandem, the result feels less pretentious than 21 Grams (2003), which merely utilized the technique to cover up the slightness of the plot. The temporal (mis)management felt less obtrusive, probably because Iñárritu is more intent in manipulating the global scope of his project. Interestingly, which also brings about my questioning of Iñárritu's goal in the film, is the way he edits his film; he cuts from one plot to another predictably --- usually abandoning a plot with a cliffhanger or with a resounding emotional note. I thought the technique makes Iñárritu's purpose dubious; is he bent on exposing something humanistic about our differences, or is he more interested in heavyhanded tragic theatrics and emotional manipulation. No wonder this film is being compared to last year's Oscar-joke Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004).
The individual stories actually have considerable potential. Iñárritu has great thesps to do most of the work for him. Adriana Barraza singlehandedly grounds her sequence; the otherwise heavy handed plot line of the Mexican nanny bringing two American children to Mexico for her son's wedding celebration resulting in a cross-border tragedy triumphs with the level of pathos Barraza infuses her character. It seems that the characters in Babel have an inkling to do stupid things; which is a characteristic of fables and parables, not of hyper-realistic modern-day dramas. The two American tourists (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) have little to no characterization; they seem to be existing in a vacuum of sorts --- privileged due to their citizenship, unprivileged also because of the way their nation have placed themselves in little ivory towers; causing their co-privileged tourists a great deal of anticipation when trapped in a Muslim village in the middle of nowhere.
Despite the film's pungent air of the mercantilization of human tragedy, and its questionable narrative coupled by the flimsiest of connective contrivances , there's plenty of stuff to observe here. All four plots conclude in various ways --- the Moroccan family collapses with the overblown accident, The Mexican nanny is separated from the American family she has served for a decade, the American couple survives with the help of Moroccan villagers, the Japanese father physically and emotionally rescues his distanced daughter.
It can be inferred that Iñárritu and Arriaga sees that the world's divide is not language or culture, but political and economic status. The Arab world has dwelled in America's labels; swimming upstream by trying to please America and absentmindedly turning into predators of its own citizenry (the Moroccan family). Mexico has seen itself as its northern neighbor's poor brother, with its citizenry sacrificing everything to become mere servants of what seems to be neo-colonial masters. The American couple garners privileges wherever they are in the world, its that substantial effect of their nation's global bullying. Japan, the world's apologetic benefactor (Yakusho's character seems to be as generous as his country) reaches too much to the outside while forgetting the daily woes of the inside.