The Anatomy Of Babel: Inarritu, Arriaga & The Art of Thematic Storytelling
Posted on October 28, 2014
Of all the films in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘death trilogy’, Babel (2006) is arguably the most richly textured and thematically diverse, taking us beyond love and death to encompass politics and international relations. Babel also sees Iñárritu expand on the messages of his earlier films Amores Perros and 21 Grams in relation to fate, grief and brotherhood.
‘In the beginning all the Lord’s people from all parts of the world spoke one language. Nothing they proposed was impossible for them. But, fearing what the spirit of man could accomplish, the Lord said, “Let us go down and confuse their language so that they may not understand one another’s speech”.’
This narration from the book of Genesis shapes Babel’s trailer, essentially telling us what the heart of the story is about, yet Iñárritu and writer Arriaga choose to exclude it from the film itself. This decision allows Babel’s audience much greater scope to infer their own meanings. Ambiguity, the space to reach our own judgements, is the inherent beauty of Iñárritu’s work and something that sets his filmmaking apart.
What then can we infer from Babel? What do these subtle references to the Bible mean? Do Iñárritu and Arriaga bring their trilogy’s themes full circle?
The Fragility Of Life
We can consider this last question by examining Babel’s similarities to Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Babel marks the final collaboration between Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga before an infamous dispute brought an end to their partnership (read more here) and it shares similar interlocking structures and multiple perspectives with their two previous films.
Once again, it is an accident of fate that draws the film’s stories together. Babel opens in Morocco. Two boys are left in charge of a rifle. Their father instructs them to ward off jackals while the family’s goats graze on the mountains. Distracted, the boys begin shooting at targets. The youngest aims at a coach on the road below and accidentally shoots an American tourist. These actions have repercussions for a Mexican nanny in San Diego and the daughter of a Japanese hunter in Tokyo.
In parallel with Amores Perros and 21 Grams, this accident of fate reminds us of the many simple interconnections that dictate the direction of our lives and yet remain entirely beyond our control. Our lives, as we know them, are fragile.
Babel’s final shot powerfully evokes these ideas of fate. Iñárritu zooms out from an intense, emotionally charged moment on a hotel balcony in night-time Tokyo. As the characters become smaller and smaller, the windows, the apartments, the car lights, multiply. Stars come into view. A city of people that at first seems disparate, begins to appear connected, dependent, part of something bigger.
The torrent of emotion in the lives of the two people on the balcony seems insignificant in light of this vast universe and yet it is also momentous. Behind every window we can imagine the same complexity of feeling, the same intensity of emotion. So many people with such strength of human feeling. It’s staggering. And a fitting conclusion to Iñárritu’s trilogy.
As discussed in my previous post, the moment of death is the focal point of Iñárritu’s second film 21 Grams. It propels the narrative and we feel its full, visceral power. Babel’s characters have experienced loss too. But we meet them sometime after, and witness the long-term, damaging effects of grief. Grief that is used primarily to explore a new theme: communication.
Initially it is the fear and shock experienced by Moroccan boys’ Ahmed and Yussef – their horror at taking a human life – that drives the film forward. It’s a compelling muddle of emotion: guilt, shame, remorse and frantic self preservation.
Their victim, Susan (Cate Blanchett), and her husband Richard (an emotional Brad Pitt) are struggling to hold their marriage together. Hidden behind the terse dialogue is the subtle suggestion that they have lost a child to cot death. Their conversation is strained. Disappointment and rage bubble beneath the surface unable to find a release.
Most troubling however, are the experiences of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf mute teenager mourning the death of her mother. Chieko’s grief and distress are exacerbated by her burgeoning sexuality and her inability to communicate it.
Sexuality, Adolescence & Jealousy
Unable to connect with her father, Chieko seeks intimacy with other men. But her dependency on body language shines a light on the importance of verbal communication in sexual relationships. Clutching at extremes Chieko takes off her underwear, opening her legs to the nervous delight of teenage boys in a crowded Japanese restaurant. But Chieko’s rejections, jealousies and increasing desperation make for uneasy viewing. She becomes progressively naked throughout the film, and her vulnerability is inexorable. Similarly undressed of verbal subtleties, there is nothing left to display but pain.
The theme of sexuality also appears in the story of Ahmed and younger brother Yussef. Yussef spies on his sister as she undresses. She knows he is watching and tantalises him, delicately peaking over her naked shoulder. Later Yussef sneaks away to masturbate. Here Iñárritu uses the theme of sexuality to expand on another: brotherly rivalry.
In Amores Perros, Iñárritu gave us two sets of brothers, each jealous to the point of violence. In Babel, Ahmed’s jealousy of his younger brother centres on Yussef’s perceived manliness – his success with women and ability to shoot. Unable to verbalise his feelings – and perhaps unable to recognise them – this sexual jealousy is bottled-up until its uncontainable tension sets the accident in motion.
Iñárritu closes Babel with a dedication to his children, ‘the brightest lights in the darkest night’. It’s a fitting dedication for a film that is so heavily precipitated by the actions of parents. This is most obvious in the story of Chieko and her father but also presents itself in the story of Ahmed and Yussef, whose horrified father is forced to contemplate his own role in the fate of his children and the incestuous relationship between his son and daughter.
Iñárritu also explores what it means to be a mother through the story of Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) who is separated from the children she has cared for. It’s a subtle contrast to the experience of Chieko.
But this theme of parenthood also serves a much bigger purpose in Iñárritu’s film, prompting us to think about the universal experiences of human existence that defy the artificial barriers we, as societies, attempt to dictate.
Globalism, Language & Communication
And so Iñárritu and Arriaga cleverly unite all of their themes – grief, sexuality, parenthood, even fate – to illuminate just one: communication.
As Richard and Susanna find a way to communicate in the wake of the accident, so too do Ahmed and Yussef, Chieko and her father. Iñárritu uses some wonderful techniques to emphasise these communication barriers: cutting between sound and silence in a Japanese nightclub gives us an eerie sense of the world as perceived by Chieko.
But Babel also takes us beyond the complications of interpersonal communication, highlighting communication issues on a much larger scale: politics and international relations. Susan and Richard are stranded in Morocco as a result of international tensions and political wrangling over the use of the airspace. A news report played over the action informs us that Moroccan ‘Authorities say [the shooting] could have been a robbery, but the American government was quick to suggest a terrorist link’.
There is undeniably a global element to Babel. Iñárritu cuts between shots of children on different continents, contrasting their experiences of childhood and, in one distressing scene involving a dirty needle, shines a light on medical inequalities. Yet Iñárritu’s film is most concerned with the physical and emotional realities of global red tape, demonstrating bureaucratic absurdity in light of universal human feeling.
US law fails to take into account the Mexican nanny’s devotion to the American children she is caring for, stranding her in Mexico with a family from whom she has drifted away. In Morocco, Richard and Susan experience the kindness of the local people in spite of international tensions. Communication is presented as humanity’s weakness: as humanity’s greatest flaw.
And so Iñárritu’s closing shot takes on even greater significance. Communication unites us and without it, we become as lonely and damaged as Chieko, standing naked on her Tokyo balcony. As Iñárritu zooms out to reveal a city full of transcendental connections, we are distinctly aware that we cannot make sense of them, or each other. Life is frequently beyond our control. In that final, beautiful shot, language, communication and fate fuse. The trailer’s biblical passage becomes clear. It is suffused into every second of Babel.
This post is part of my spotlight Alejandro González Iñárritu. Stay tuned for the next instalment on his fourth film Biutiful. You can find all of the posts in the series here. And if you’d like to find out more about Babel, you can find an excellent interview with the director talking about his work on the film at KCRW here.
Running Time: 143 Minutes
Images: © 2006 Paramount