Sunday, July 27, 2008

69. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s US/Mexican/French film "Babel" (2006): Lack of empathy or a problem of communication?

There is a revival of interest worldwide in making feature films that comprise several disparate stories that link up with a common thought or use a common location. This is now called the portmanteau film. Such films have sporadically surfaced over the decades but their appeal seems to be limited to the serious film goer. Babel belongs to that odd genre stitching together several stories, one taking place in rural Morocco, another set in towns on the Mexico--USA border, and a final one in urban Japan. Understandably you hear five languages--Berber, Arabic, English, Japanese and Spanish—with subtitles to help the viewer, not to mention sign language used by the hearing impaired.

To understand the film one needs to know the historical meaning of Babel. Babel is a city described in Christian and Jewish scriptures relating to King Nimrod in The Book of Genesis. In that book, Babel was a city that united humanity with a single language in use by its denizens. But the King made the tower not for praising God but for the glory of man. The holy book says God was angry and confused the languages of the people, eventually abandoning the building of the tower and scattering the people who were building it to various far away lands because they could no longer understand each other.

A simplistic approach to the film Babel would be to evaluate all the actions of different individuals and the way each action impacts someone else in the world. In that perspective, the benign action of a Japanese tourist gifting a rifle to a tourist guide in Morocco, can lead to USA mistaking an accidental shooting by young boys for an act of international terrorism, while an American’s refusal to be empathetic to his maid’s request for a short leave to attend a marriage leads to deaths and loss of livelihoods for innocent but economically poor Mexicans. Lives are indeed connected in this global village of ours.

However, another approach to enjoy the film would be to compare the interpersonal relationships of individuals from the developed world with those of the developing world. There is disconnection between husbands and wives (the US couple who cannot communicate to each other and reconcile the loss of third child until a worse tragedy overtakes them, a Japanese couple whose lives are a wreck in spite of riches ultimately leading to the wife’s suicide) in the developed world. In the developing world, family ties are comparatively stronger (a Mexican housemaid uses all her resources to attend a close family wedding throwing basic intelligence to the wind, a Moroccan goat herder while chastising his three growing children who are inquisitive about sex, reinforces traditional family values of respect for each other’s privacy).

Yet another approach to the film is to analyze the varied attitudes of the personalities. It is interesting to note the bewilderment of an American man (Brad Pitt) when a poor Arab refuses his money for helping his wounded wife (Cate Blanchett). For an Arab, it is an insult to take money for helping someone in distress. The lack of communication is not limited to language (Arab vs. Berber vs. English vs. Spanish vs. sign language) or disability to speak (physical dumbness) but the lack of empathy (US officials manning a border crossing or the rich American putting his priorities on his personal worries over those of his less affluent Mexican domestic help). For the French tourists, their own safety and comfort take priority over the problems of an American couple in distress. The film goes beyond the demands on people to listen to others; it grapples with the lack of empathy in relationships. Would the Mexican nanny have been more forceful in her phone communication with her employer had her financial security been better? Are our communications with people governed by economics? Hypothetically, if the entire world was financially secure and equal as in the days of King Nimrod—there would be only one language and, perhaps. we would understand each other better.

The film has won accolades for the director Iñárritu but the writer of the script, Guillermo Arriaga, deserves equal credit. It is unfortunate if reports are to be believed that a spat between the two resulted in the director keeping the scriptwriter away from the Cannes festival where the director took all the credit. The film has howlers. For instance, a helicopter with a Red Cross in Morocco makes an appearance, when anyone in the Arab world knows that the Red Cross is replaced by the Red Crescent in that part of the world. This trivia probably ironically reflects the basic storyline of Babel.

At the end of the film the viewer is nudged by the director to listen more to others. The film reiterates that the world has come to a situation where present day Nimrods can be pleased with the progress in the world and build “towers of Babel” but this progress is negated if we do not try to understand each other. The film clearly underlines one fact—no individual is bad and that everyone means well. Yet there is strife because everyone is living their lives for their own ends.

My guess is that director Iñárritu took more than a handful of cues for this film from the 2005 Hollywood portmanteau film Nine Lives directed by Rodrigo Garcia and produced by Iñárritu himself. Garcia’s film is more professional (it won awards at Locarno festival) and touches on several issues presented in Babel. But Babel with its Cannes award (interestingly the film was co-financed by the French) was marketed better than Nine Lives worldwide. If you liked Babel, see Garcia’s (Garcia is the son of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez) film Nine Lives. You will then know how Iñárritu apparently worked on Arriaga’s script to make it considerably similar to Nine Lives, the film Inarritu had produced a year earlier! To Iñárritu’s credit, he thanks Rodrigo Garcia and the brilliant Mexican director Carlos Reygadas in the end-credits of Babel.

Babel won an Oscar for best original musical score, two prizes at the Cannes festival (Best Director prize and a prize for Editing) and a Golden Globe for Best Film –Drama.

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