Thursday, February 8, 2007


BABEL (2006, 142 min)

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Written by Guillermo Arriaga

Richard (Am Tourist) Brad Pitt
Susan (Am Tourist) Cate Blanchett
Debbie (blonde daughter) Elle Fanning
Mike (blonde son) Nathan Gamble
Amelia (nanny) Adriana Barraza
Santiago (Amelia's nephew) Gael Garcia Bernal
Yasujiro (Father) Koji Yakusho
Chieko (daughter) Rinko Kikuchi
Mitsu Yuko Murata
Kenji Satoshi Nikaido
Abdullah (Father) Mustapha Rachidi
Ahmed (older son) Said Tarchani
Yussef (younger son) Boubker Ait El Caid
Anwar (helps Richard, rejects money) Mohamed Akhzam
Hassan (guide who sells rifle) Abdelkader Bara
Hassan's Wife Ehou Mama
Alarid Driss Roukhe

Officer at Border Crossing Clifton Collins Jr.
John (border Patrol) Michael Pena

Although as humans we do not communicate very well,
"we all share the same spiritual spine." --
Alejandro Iñárritu

The movie Babel is a profound work about the human condition of not listening and the consequences of the misunderstanding that follows. The story of Babel in Genesis recounts man's effort to become equal with God and build a tower that reached to the heavens. God, angry at man's arrogance, confounded man's communication with different languages. This movie, however, suggests that it is not the barrier of language that creates humanity's lack of communication, but the barrier of not-listening and not loving.

Synopsis from the Production Notes

"Armed with a Winchester rifle, two Morrocan boys set out to look after their family’s herd of goats. In the silent echoes of the desert, they decide to test the rifle… but the bullet goes farther than they thought it would. In an instant, the lives of four separate groups of strangers on three different continents collide. Caught up in the rising tide of an accident that escalates beyond anyone’s control are a vacationing American couple, a rebellious deaf Japanese teenager and her father, and a Mexican nanny who, without permission, takes two American children across the border. None of these strangers will ever meet; in spite of the sudden, unlikely connection between them, they will all remain isolated due to their own inability to communicate meaningfully with anyone around them."

Fortunately, motion pictures like Babel, through the universality of pictures and sound, have a way of getting us to listen. In the words of the director, mankind has developed an "inability to love," and tragically, it is then suffering that forces love back upon us. It is in Babel that we once again learn something about how suffering brings meaning and purpose to life.

The film's production notes state:
The film tackles the unsettling contradiction that although we now live in a world where the latest, greatest technologies make it shockingly easy to communicate on a global level, people still feel largely isolated and apart from one another.
To me, this movie suggests that the Genesis story of Babel and the curse of many physical languages, is a metaphor for what sin had already done by psychologically blockading humankind's ability to listen and care for one another. Far worse than different languages, is the hardness of our heart to listen, and instead, erroneously assume things that are not true, and then, based on our imagination or lack of it, condemn.

Four Different Stories About One Thing

American tourists, Richard and Susan go to the Sahara desert of Morocco to escape their loneliness after losing a child. They have stopped listening to each other and feel resentment toward each other. Their disrespect results in a breakdown in emotional communication. It will take a tragedy to bring them back together.

Anwar and Yussef are the young Moroccan brothers from a Muslim home where Yussef, the younger, regularly peeps on his sister while she is undressing. Their father carelessly gives them a rifle to protect the goatherd, but they use a bus filled with American tourists for target practice, and Susan is critically shot. The family, especially the boys, have stopped listening to moral instruction, they disrespect moral laws, and consequently experience a breakdown in moral communication. It will take a tragedy to bring what's left of the family back together.

About the Moroccan brothers, Iñárritu remarks:
When values crumble nothing makes sense anymore; when a link is broken, it's not just the link that breaks, but the whole chain.
Yasujiro is a widower, in Toyko, Japan who has lost his wife to suicide. He is at a loss about how to physically connect with his daughter, Chieko, who through a combination of teenage rebellion and a lack of respect for her body, flails at sexual extremes to fulfill her yearning for affection. They are experiencing a breakdown in physical communication, made all the more obvious by Chieko's loss of hearing and speech. She is an attractive girl, also a deafmute, who disrespects her body. It is the tragedy of the mother's suicide and a compassionate detective that brings father and daughter back together on the verge of yet another suicide.

Amelia is the illegal alien nanny in San Diego caring for Richard and Susan's children, Mike and Debbie, while their parents are in Morocco. In order to attend her son's wedding south of Tijuana, she fails to find someone to care for the children. So, with the help of her careless nephew, they transport the children illegally into Mexico for the day and night's celebration. On the return trip, her drunk nephew, and her own lack of paperwork and passports, casts Amelia and the children hopelessly lost into the unforgiving desert. Amelia represents a breakdown in social communication where society's laws are disrespected.

In all of these overlapping stories there is a truth, and when that truth is not listened to, there are tragic consequences. What is that truth? It's what I call the moral premise. For Babel, in the movie's vernacular, the moral premise can be stated like this

Not listening leads to becoming profoundly lost and confused; but
Listening leads to deep connection and understanding.
In this statement of the moral premise the concept of "not listening" is not a passivity or deafness to the spoken word. It's an arrogance that cuddles prejudice and assumption. Certainly the border guard who arrests Amelia in the desert hears her words, and perhaps could even repeat them. But he doesn't listen. Like some dangerous criminal he handcuffs her, and traumatizes her to the point of confusion, which hinders her ability to even follow her footsteps through the sand back to where the children lie unattended. The border guard not listening further confuses Amelia and reinforces the profound loss of the situation.

On the other hand, the concept of "listening" has little to do with understanding the actual words being spoken, yet has everything to do with compassion and understanding. When Susan lies in excruciating and never-ending pain on the dirt floor of the Moroccan hut, it is an old woman, who can't understand a word of what she says, who relives her pain with a smoke pipe that kills her pain and helps her to relax. The old woman's action creates a deep connection and understanding with Susan.

The number of ways that the story explores how the lack of listening and a lack of love leads to loneliness, estrangement and chaos are numerous.
  • Chieko, the Japanese daughter, rejects her father's willingness to show her affection, and she's "deaf" to his need for her affection. Her decision to not listen, regardless of her deafness, leads to Chieko's experimentation with hallucinating drugs, willingness to participate in degrading sex, and her near suicide. At the end of the movie, her naked vulnerability is deafening.
  • Along with Chieko's story she does not listen to the authority of the volleyball referee, the natural laws of body or society's laws about drugs, the detective's need for information, or her body's reaction to her mind's willingness to expose herself to danger.
  • Richard and Susan, escaped to the desert because of the desert in their relationship after the loss of their child. Had they been true listeners and loving companions to each other, the trip to the desert would not have been necessary, and their children back home would not have been endangered by Amelia carelessly taking them across the border.
  • Along with Richard's story, he does not listen to the pleas of the other tourist's for their safety, nor do they listen to his need for companionship and assistance. Had they listened to each other the bus could have proceeded to a nearby community, from where greater help could have been sent. Neither he nor the embassy communicate very well over the phone, and he fails to understand why he can't get help right away. And most profoundly, when he talks to Amelia by phone about her son's wedding, he is as deaf as she is to him.
  • Yussef, the younger of the two Moroccan brothers, rejects the moral reminders of his brother about not peeping at their older sister as she undresses, and he disrespects the life and property of others when he uses a tourist bus for target practice. His father, Abdullah, does not listen to the laws of his land or religion as he leads his two sons on a futile escape from the police who are closing in. The result is the older son's death from a rain of bullets when the police start to shoot before asking the father and boys to give themselves up. The police's lack of listening and their quick triggers cause the death of Ahmed
  • Amelia's illegal status in the U.S. reveals how she does not listen to society's laws, and her unreliable and reckless nephew has not listened to his body's tolerance for alcohol, nor does he listen to the border crossing agent, nor does he listen to Amelia's repeated demands to drive safer and slower. Amelia is ultimately deported and loses the life in the U.S. that she had made for herself, and the children lose a loving Nanny.
  • Amelia's story also highlights the U.S. dilemma of not listening to the many people in Mexico who struggle to make a decent living out of near nothingness. It may be illegal for Mexicans to work in the U.S. without a permit, but the difficulty of getting those permits also creates situations similar to Amelia's. The Catholic bishops have made the point many times that the border should be more open, for the sake of those that are poor; and the United States should be more generous with its wealth.

While Babel doesn't allow the various story lines to be fully resolved by the story's end, we are left with the knowledge that each of the various stories' protagonists have learned that listening and respect are gateways to connections and love.

We have also learned through this movie, as in many others, as well as real life, that tragedy and suffering have a grand purpose of reducing human arrogance, deafness, and prejudice to the point where compassion, listening, and love are forced into the open as Richard drops his own interests and cares for his wife, as Yussef gives himself up to die even for the life of his innocent brother, as Chieko allows her father to take her hand and show her the beginning of the affection that they both so desperately need, and as Amelia's son comes to the border crossing to take his estranged mother home, where we know there is a widower who will love her.

One of Many Moments of Grace

I think the most poignant moment in the film occurs when Susan, unable to move on the dirt floor of the village home, tells Richard she has wet her pants, but that she has to pee again. In some respects it is a hopeful sign—her body has not given up the fight. It is still functioning. But here she lays, bloody and broken in a desperate, lonely, and desolate place. Nearby sits Anwar guarding the door to the outside. He has listened from the beginning to Richard and Susan's pain and he has been their loving servant in their plight. Richard asks Anwar for a pan, which Anwar produces. He then leaves to give them privacy. Struggling to pull down her underwear and lift her awkwardly up to use the pan, they embrace out of necessity to perform the human act. And in that embrace, of embarrassment and pain, dirt and dependence — they kiss, passionately, forgivingly. It is the suffering of their life, even the loss of the child, this wilderness experience that re-forges their love and compassion for one another.

Modernity is no Replacement for Marriage

Finally, there are a pair of scenes, 88 minutes apart, that say something strikingly important about modernity and marriage. The first is about the relationship between our ability to listen and modernity. Recall, again the scene at about 1 hr 54 min where Richard struggles to help Susan pull down her urine soaked underwear so she can urinate in a dirty pan in the middle of a dirt-floored hut on the edge of nowhere. Note that Richard could have told her that she didn't need to use a pan, why bother, she had already wet her pants once, do it again. But out of love, out of their struggle, out of her sickness, and out of their deplorable situation, together, they valiantly fight for a sense of dignity that only marriage brings. And in that heroic effort, together, they rediscover a connection and a true, passionate love. Now, recall a similar sequence in the movie 88 minutes earlier with the opposite effect. In this scene, Chieko, in the center of technologically urban Japan and a well-appointed club's bathroom, removes her panties -- not to urinate -- but to be provocative and to attract the illicit affection of a boy. Chieko's action does not result in connection and love, but isolation, alienation, and dread. These two scenes, while on opposite sides of the globe, one urban the other desert, one message is clear:
Modernity, money, and technology are no warrantor of connection and love. Better to be poor on the edge of the wilderness -- and listen.
The second message of these two scenes reinforces the sacredness of marriage in the way the scenes are presented and filmed. First, Chieko wears a provocative short shirt, but Susan is always modestly dressed. Two, we see Chieko's immoral blatancy, but Susan's dignity and decorum are protected. And three, while Chieko's undressing is done alone with the intent of fornication, Susan's undressing is with Richard's help within the bonds of marriage.

In all these ways here is what the movie Babel is really about:
Not listening leads to loss, confusion, and prejudice; but
Listening leads to connection, understanding, and love.


Isabella said...

I really liked this post and I completely agree with the message you suggest. I am writing a paper on the oppression present in the film and basically the path to it being resolved. Problem is I only have 1000 words to play with. Any suggestions on what you find to be the most important points in relation to this journey of oppression and resolution??

Any advice would be amazing!

Kathy lay said...

I don't get the part where Brad is listening to his son on the phone talk about hermit while the mom is in surgery. Didn't they already have that conversation prior to the nanny taking them to Mexico? I'm confused

Stanley D. Williams said...

Kathy, it's been too long ago for me to remember that scene with any clarity. But the two conversations may be illustrating the difference in motivations suggested by the moral premise—listening vs. non listening. You might look for a subtle change in motivation on Richard's (Brad Pitt) part between the two. This is a very profound movie and I don't recall anything out of place or extraneous.