Babel: worlds within worlds

Maggie Gee
17 January 2007

8 Mexico

Amelia, the Mexican nanny for the wealthy American family, searches for help that never comes as she wanders lost in the death-trap desert on the US-Mexico border

Babel is a beautiful film, both complex and simple. The viewing experience is complex, as you try to make sense of a mosaic of apparently disconnected stories in Morocco, Mexico and Japan. But the final effect, as the last section of the film twines all the threads into one and leads us out of the labyrinth, is satisfyingly simple, touching the heart.

It gives an intimate message we can all relate to, beyond language and beyond the time zones that cut the narrative into pieces: love, and care for, your children. If you don't - and perhaps even if you do, but have bad luck - they will die. This is the ‘small world' story. The big world is what you try to protect your children from, where vast inequalities of wealth and power, sliding suddenly together and apart again like tectonic plates, produce accidental, tragic consequences.

There is bad luck, and then there is bad technology. The gun, in this film, is the source of all evil. That is the ‘big world' story. Behind the effects of a single gun (tracked by the director, Alejandro González Iñárritu and the writer, Guillermo Arriaga, with mesmerising intensity from one side of the earth to the other) we may read a parable about the effects of the arms trade.

The initiating incident of the story is simple. A rifle has been given, in an act of generous but unwise patronage, to a Moroccan guide, Hassan, though the identity of the donor is not revealed till the very end of the film. Babel begins at the point when Hassan is selling the gun to his friend, a villager keeping goats for their role in the tourist leather trade, who thinks his pubertal sons can use it to shoot jackals.

But boys will be boys. Instead, they take rivalrous pot-shots at a tourist bus hundreds of metres below them, too small and distant to seem real to them. We watch from the boys' viewpoint as the bus continues along the winding road unchecked; they yell their mixture of disappointment and relief into the void; and then the little white bus slows to a halt. And they run, terrified.

12 Morocco

Yusuf and Ahmed, two brothers, flee after the bus shooting in Morocco

Distance is very important in this film: different cultures are too far apart to imagine each other, and yet modernity means they are constantly colliding. The boys see only a tiny toy bus, but the film director can swoop us, the audience, down into the body of the coach where Richard and Susan, an ordinary, rich couple of American tourists (well played by a grizzled, un-vain Brad Pitt and a palely vulnerable Cate Banchett) sit bickering restrainedly. Susan stares out of the window. There is a small noise, Richard looks round - and suddenly sees blood is flooding from a wound near Susan's throat.

Soon news programmes across the world - in particular America, where the couple's Hispanic nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is trying to look after their angelic blonde children although she needs to go to Mexico, to her own son's wedding - are saying that there has been a terrorist attack on a tourist bus. The Moroccan government overreacts to protect their tourist economy, sending brutal policemen out to search for the supposed gunmen. Babel is an immensely subtle piece of storytelling which alerts us to the dangers of cruder ones, as regimes and mainstream media read events too fast and too simplistically.

Apart from anything else, the people in this film literally do not understand each other. In the biblical Babel, God punished the over-ambitious building plans of human beings by condemning them to speak in mutually incomprehensible languages. Most of the cinematic Babel is split between three different linguistic regions, Morocco, Mexico and Japan.

Morocco is the poorest. The tourists who come here speak no Arabic, and the Moroccan peasants no English; when the wounded American tourist is brought for help to the village, Anwar, who can interpret between English and Arabic, becomes the hero of the film. (Mohamed Akhzam, who plays him, gives perhaps its best performance.)

Then there is Mexico, sitting somewhere between the developed and developing worlds. Here, unlike Morocco, the people have enough money for cars and alcohol and flashy celebration. Yet Mexicans are still a million miles away from the stratified, protected luxury of life in the US, separated from it by a frontier manned by gun-toting policemen and, most significantly, by language.

Many are able to cross the frontier only as illegal workers like Susan and Richard's nanny Amelia, who, after making a life in the US for sixteen years, loses her precarious hold partly because her English is still not good enough to explain what has happened and why she needs to get back across the border to California.

6 Mexico, 2 Japan

Top: Santiago and Amelia the nanny try to get across the border back to the US Bottom: Tokyo skyline, the film's very own "towers of Babel"

The third country, and by far the richest, is Japan, seen here mostly as a nocturnal, electric-lit Tokyo, a glittering blue grid of skyscrapers which are the film's towers of Babel, each light the marker of a cell of urban isolation. In another metaphor for missing communication, the central Japanese character is a deaf-mute adolescent girl, Chieko (superbly played by Rinko Kikuchi), whose mother is dead and whose caring but remote father is a rich businessman, Yosajiro.

In the final scene where Chieko tries to break out of her isolation by stripping stark naked for a policeman, we are also shown, on the wall of the father's exquisite penthouse apartment, the final link in the narrative chain that binds the blue-grey steel and glass of Japan to the blue-grey rocks of Morocco.

Some people will like this film's jump-cuts across continents and tricky chronology more than others. Babel asks the audience to do detective work and take imaginative leaps: but so, after all, does real life in our fractured, plural modern world. A succession of good films, including Crash, Syriana and of course the two previous collaborations by Iñárritu and Arriaga, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, have used the same nervy, cut-up structure, so it is almost starting to seem familiar.

As a writer myself, I was actually more impressed by the skill with which the film used traditional poetic patterning. The blood that flowers from Cate Blanchett's white neck is echoed by the hot reds of the Mexican wedding to which her nanny Amelia takes Richard and Susan's white-blonde children, with the kitschy scarlet suits of the musicians matching Amelia's tight red lace dress. In Japan (where the skinny teens flee into a pill-fuelled happyland) a sudden burst of red quince blossoms on the grey city streets remind us that real blood has been shed. It is all very carefully worked.

This, then, is certainly what you might call an ‘art' film. But it also has a lot to please the mass audience it will get now it has won the ultimate pre-Oscar Hollywood accolade, a Golden Globe for best picture. In particular, Babel has an acute grasp of narrative tension (the scenes where Richard is waiting for help to arrive as his wife bleeds out her life are all but unbearable) and much human warmth. Amelia, their nanny, loves the children she is paid to care for to desperation: Anwar, the Moroccan interpreter, refuses the money Richard offers him for helping Susan.

Babel's emotional and visual pleasures should not blind us to the simpler story told by the gift of the gun. It is a moral and political one. Arms kill. Countries like Britain sell their weapons around the planet without any control over the consequences. We know some of what happened to the arms we sold to Iraq when Saddam Hussein was our friend. What ripples of totally unexpected disasters are even now starting to spread, darkening, into the future from the weapons we sell today?

7 Morocco

The injured American and her husband, with the film’s “hero”, Anwar, in the background

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