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Add Babel to the new subgenre of the "interlocking stories drama" (think Magnolia, Crash, etc.). But think global when you do it, as director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his regular scripter Guillermo Arriaga set discreetly connected tales of grief and loss on a worldwide stage.
In Morocco, a Berber goat shepherd buys a rifle and gives it to his two young teen sons to kill jackals. When they use a tour bus for target practice, a careless shot hits Susan, one half of an angst-ridden American couple on vacation in search of healing after the loss of their infant son.
Desperate to find a doctor to save her life, husband Richard agrees to have the bus diverted to the truly isolated (but nearby) desert hometown of the bus's tour guide. As the news gets out, the specter that the shooting might be the work of terrorists complicates efforts to reach the couple with medical aid.
In San Diego, where Richard and Susan live, the tragic delay causes their faithful Mexican nanny, Amelia (a longtime illegal immigrant), to decide to take their two young children with her when she attends her son's wedding in a Mexican border town. That exposes the kids to her colorful and impulsive nephew, Santiago. And eventually to a disastrous immigration-related nightmare.
In Tokyo, a deaf teen girl named Chieko is emotionally disconnected from her father after the recent suicide of her mom. Apparently believing that indulging her sexual longings will relieve the pain of grief, she sets out on a self-destructive path to offer herself to men her own age and much older. It becomes clear only later in the film how her story is tied into the others' as all tracks race pell-mell toward ever more tragic conclusions.
Although his film's messages grow murkier upon reflection, Iñárritu seems, at the very least, to want us to realize that regardless of our language, place on the planet or social status, we're all just as likely to make bad choices and suffer great losses. If you prick us—any of us—the same red blood flows and the same salty tears fall. Understanding that, he seems to be saying, is helpful in building empathy for each other.
Most of the film's characters make unwise and/or hurtful choices, making the kindnesses of a few stand out. The Moroccan tour guide who offers Richard and Susan tireless assistance does so selflessly. Two of the grown men Chieko blatantly exposes herself to rightly and bluntly refuse her sexual advances, one offering instead tender support and understanding. Amelia truly cares for Richard and Susan's kids (though her choices risk their safety). She also shares a warm sense of closeness with her family in Mexico.
The Muslim tour guide is seen bowing and praying. The wedding of Amelia's son is a Catholic affair. Images of the Virgin Mary join gaudy decorations around their small town.
In an odd addition to the story, one of the Berber shepherd's two sons regularly spies on his sister when she is changing clothes—with her knowledge and approval. The camera sees her bare back and a glimpse of the side of her breast through the peephole. The boy later hides behind a rock and lowers his pants; nothing is shown below the waist, but his movement and facial expressions reveal that he's masturbating.
Amelia dances with and later passionately kisses a man. A crude sexual joke is made at the wedding. Richard and the wounded Susan kiss passionately in a tender—but should have remained private—moment. (He's holding her to help her urinate.) Teen girls are seen in bras and panties in a locker room. One of Chieko's friends makes out intently with a guy at a club.
By far the most troubling sexual content in Babel involves Chieko herself. Though the teen's quest to find a man to have sex with is eventually and rightly revealed as dangerous and self-destructive, Iñárritu apparently believes we must see up her miniskirt when she removes her panties to flash a group of boys. He also wants us to watch as she licks her dentist's face and places his hand between her legs. (He immediately throws her out.) Later, fully nude, she exposes herself to another man (the camera looks on from the front and back) and places his hands on her breasts. (He also rejects her advance.)
The extent to which the director needlessly and shamelessly exposes a teen character's clearly troubled sexuality blurs the line between showing the sometimes self-destructive nature of grief and taking advantage of it. With a little restraint, Iñárritu could have communicated all of Chieko's desperate actions without reaching for the shock value of forcing her nudity (and, in a sense, her shame) on the viewer.
In the film's central act, Susan is hit by the shepherd boy's bullet as she sleeps on the bus. Blood flows and we eventually get a close-up look at the wound while she is held down, writhing in agony as it's being stitched up. Richard scuffles angrily with another bus passenger. The Berber shepherd beats several of his kids. Moroccan police savage—and eventually exchange fatal gunfire with—locals. Santiago twists a chicken's head off resulting in the expected spray of blood, horrifying Richard and Susan's two young children who caught the bird for him as part of game.
Crude or Profane Language
In addition to at least one use of "Jesus Christ" for swearing, about 20 f-words and a handful of s-words are uttered. Sporadic doses of milder profanities up the count.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Teens and twentysomethings smoke cigarettes at clubs. Chieko drinks whiskey and takes some kind of drug with friends. We experience Chieko's "high" as she hits a club in Tokyo with the group. Susan is given something to smoke to help with her intense pain; the drug causes her to pass out. Wedding partyers drink heavily. Santiago (also seen smoking) is obviously inebriated when he sets out to drive Amelia and the kids from the wedding back to San Diego, resulting in disastrous consequences.
Other Negative Elements
In several of the stories, children occupy the center of the physical and emotional suffering.
Babel, which borrows its title from the Genesis 11 account of the moment in history when God scrambled humankind's languages and locations to limit our effectiveness at achieving corporate evil, is a masterpiece of raw cinematic emotion hung on a framework of muddled messages and extreme content. As an exercise in empathy, Iñárritu's stories nailed me. Once I bought into the characters and their settings (and to the director's credit, I bought hard), every moment of the film was drenched in anxiety, sorrow and dread. The fact that not all of the tales end in utter loss offered little relief. And the movie's sadness hung with me long after I left the theater.
Babel undoubtedly captures the truth that we're all united in our sorrows. As the director told Entertainment Weekly, "Tolstoy said that happiness is what gets families together. I think what really connects human beings is what makes us miserable." Point taken. Loss of loved ones. Regret for wrong choices that lead to irreparable consequences. Dashed hopes for our children's innocence. We are joined by these experiences, sure, but is that enough of a moral to justify enduring the exquisite pain of this collection of characters—and the sometimes excruciatingly explicit rendering of their flailings? Are we so numb to the agonies of real people in our neighborhoods and on our small screens every night, so unable to make the leap of empathy without a narrative that we need a fictional big-screen reminder that it's happening everywhere?
Perhaps. But at what cost? And should exposure to graphic sexual solicitations and total nudity, among other trouble spots in the film, be part and parcel with the process?
Iñárritu also told EW, "The film is about prejudice and the dangerous walls we build that affect [communication] personally. And on a global scale, between George Bush and the Muslim world." So it seems that he wants us to take away more than just sadness for all the heartache in the world. Powerful performances delivered in five separate languages under harsh conditions around the globe, and amazing cinematography, visual collections of desolate beauty didn't get this part of the job done, though. Why? In a sentence, it's not the experience of the characters.
It's true that cultural barriers compound the anxiety and isolation each grapples with, but the truest suffering springs from the consequences of much more personal choices. Babel illustrates, whether Iñárritu wants it to or not, that universal human suffering springs less from our misunderstandings and lack of compassion than from the decisions we make that hurt ourselves and those we love—and our misguided responses to the resulting pain. We (and our families) are in much greater need of saving from ourselves than we are from divisive cultural barriers.
In our confused, intersecting and interlocking, post-Babel world, the movie Babel offers no real hope of salvation from the source of our sufferings. I know of only one: the God who offers forgiveness and hope through the sufferings of His Son in the universal language of unconditional love.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Brad Pitt as Richard; Cate Blanchett as Susan; Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko; Adriana Barraza as Amelia; Gael Garcia Bernal as Santiago; Boubker Ait El Caid as Yussef; Said Tarchani as Ahmed