Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal
by Paul Murphy
Babel depicts four distinct, yet subtly connected slices of life. The theme of Babel is translation, better still mis-translation, as cross-cultural co-ordinates begin to shift under the strain of slippage or distortion. Language is the film’s subject. Mankind, according to the Bible, is considered to be an inherently flawed creation dependent on a perfect being and the construction of the original tower of Babel, a potentially hubristic act of defiance towards the God who created mankind. The cross connections depicted in Babel, the Japanese businessman who leaves a rifle as a present to a Moroccan herdsman who lends it to his son, the American couple, a reminder perhaps of Port and Kit Moresby, the antagonists of Paul Bowles novel The Sheltering Sky. But Babel is not a parable of innocents abroad. Rather it serves as a paradigm of the contemporary world. Its discourse is that of ordinary decent Americans minding their own business and eventually becoming victims, not of terrorists, but of juvenile stupidity and moral negligence by adults.
The young Moroccan herdsmen defends his flock of goats with his rifle, but can’t help testing its range, firstly on distant hilltops, then on cars and buses that wind their way through the valley below. His friend hits a coach and a bullet bursts through a window. They flee the scene, leaving the ground strewn with bullets/evidence. The coach is packed with British tourists who simply want to get on with their holiday and don’t want to be stranded in a remote Moroccan village as they wait for an ambulance or helicopter to arrive to take Susan (Cate Blanchett) to hospital. When the local doctor arrives he advises Richard (Brad Pitt) that there is hope for his wife if the wound is sewn up, but his advice is mis-translated. Richard, however, is aware that he isn’t being told the truth, that there is another agenda at work
The propaganda message of Babel overwhelms any sincere attempt to create art, for art has something to do with ambiguity, complexity, depth of characterisation, complex unfolding narratives. Although the narrative is seemingly complex, the four interlocking stories merely add up to confusion rather than clarity or understanding. The characters in Babel can easily be boiled down to types and these types constitute a racial hierarchy. Each race evinces different levels of emotional, intellectual independence or dependency beginning with America at the top and Arabs at the bottom. Babel seems to evoke the bald simplicity of figures without form or individualism, depicted against the stark, iconic backdrop of a vast, impersonal, empty desert landscape which typifies an attempt to reduce context, historical background, replacing that with a good deal of sentimentality, as in the story of the deaf/mute Japanese girls’ basketball team, their search for love and sex. But the film is not a serious essay about overcoming disability. Rather it serves the needs of propaganda at a time when explanations of American innocence and Arab culpability are being required. The film almost sets out a Medieval cosmology or narrative, which is entirely familiar to readers of Chaucer or Dante, of types that represent the struggle between good and evil, or rather financial or emotional independence vs patterns of negliegence, uncaringness or sheer stupidity.
The episode set in the Mexican desert border is almost a Ps or aside and has little bearing on the rest of the film except to say how completely correct police behaviour is and how criminal behaviour evolves not out of deliberate intention, but from emotionally charged behaviour that has no context, no basis in history. The Moroccan herdsman and his family are subjected to inhuman treatment by the police, but we are not led to sympathise with their predicament, nor with the predicament of the herdsman and his son, whom the police shoot dead. But it is the wrong person for his young friend admits to the shooting and to returning fire on the police. The Japanese businessman is merely negligent in giving the rifle to the Moroccan herdsman. Earlier his wife commits suicide, not by jumping off the balcony of her apartment, but as the businessman tells the policeman at the end of the film, by shooting herself (no doubt with the same gun that he then hands onto the next idiot). Babel is not sincere enough to be art, neither is it as seemingly complex as it would have the viewer believe. The film could easily have been edited down from its running time of 2 and a half hours to something under 2.
Babel will be lauded for all the wrong reasons, mis-understood and mis-contextualised. It is propaganda with the appearance of art, a surface confusion rather than a meaningful contribution to understanding the contemporary world or the human condition in it.
Paul Murphy saw Babel at the Duke of York cinema in Brighton.