Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has a point to make with his second Hollywood offering, BABEL. He wants us to see how we don’t listen to each other and to what extent that is making all of our lives more difficult. To do this, he tells four different stories where characters find themselves in situations where they are not understood despite all their efforts to be. These stories stretch across the globe, from Tokyo to Mexico and center around an incident in Morocco that sparks an international scandal. Inarritu treats his imagery like poetry and has created a stunning picture with pacing that ranges from peacefully prophetic to tensely wrenching. But despite its unmitigated design, there is a larger irony undermining BABEL. It is a film concerned with the struggles faced when trying to get your point across that also wants to show how our lives are all connected, yet its four storylines stretch to connect to each other and the point gets somewhat lost in that process.
Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play Richard and Susan, an American married couple on a sour vacation in Morocco. Their youngest child has just died of natural causes and they have come to try to forget. Instead, the guilt and anger they could not express at home has only become more prominent in their isolation. A stray bullet hits Susan in the shoulder while she glares out her tour bus window and her vacation goes from bad to potentially tragic. The unfolding of this scenario best exemplifies Inarritu’s views on the frustration that often goes alongside communication. A desperately frightened Richard must get his wife medical attention in a town without a hospital and where no one speaks his language. He finds one tour guide who carries him through the experience, facilitating his translation. Speech is not his only barrier as this small Moroccan village’s medical treatment is far from what Richard is accustomed to in his privileged life at home in California. He then runs into trouble where one would not expect him to. He is unable to convey the seriousness of his wife’s condition to the remaining tour bus passengers, most of them American. He requires their support but they don’t listen to a word he says, focusing solely on their own needs, some selfish and some reasonable. As Richard is rightfully focused on his wife’s needs, he isn’t listening to them either and arguments ensue. Richard’s communicative difficulties also extend to one other person, Susan. Writer Guillermo Arriaga brings us to the most intimate frustration with understanding here when these two people require a brush with death to get them to be quiet enough to hear how afraid each other is and how responsible each feels for the death of their child.
The remaining plots branch out from this incident but whereas the execution of the plights is poignantly told, the connections themselves are weak. Richard and Susan’s children run into trouble of their own when their Mexican Nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza) takes them over the border so that she can attend her son’s wedding. When reentering the United States, the border patrol are suspicious and begin asking many questions. Amelia does not have difficulties speaking English but does not answer their questions as well as she should. The film loses some focus here, as the patrollers’ approaches are more racist in nature than anything else. Whereas racism is certainly another form of fear and misunderstanding, this dire situation feels easily avoidable and contrived to serve the film’s purpose. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a deaf and mute teenage girl deals with the loss of her mother and fights to be heard when she can’t make any noise. Cheiko is played by Rinko Kikuchi; it is a vibrant and commanding performance. She herself cannot hear what others are trying to say and is limited in how she can communicate her own feelings and desires. Her struggle is only intensified by her lack of physical connection to other people, as she is an aggravated virgin. All of her attempts to entice are thwarted by her silent aggression and her incapacity to get anyone to hear her is heartbreaking. In many ways, her storyline is the most effective but it is only tied to the whole of the film because her father’s rifle was used in Susan’s shooting in Morocco.
The word “babel” finds its roots in an association to the Hebrew verb “balal,” which means to confuse or confound. Hence, when someone is said to be babbling, they are not communicating their point properly, just spewing out a bunch of unnecessary words that end up being entirely pointless. All of Inarritu’s words and images are carefully chosen and constructed in a concise fashion that is on many levels successful, but by trying to get across so much, he ends up narrowly missing his own point.