Babbling Through the World
Mass communication. Global contact. Immediate gratification. These are the themes the world is living with in 2006. Someone in Alaska can send an email to a friend in Southeast Asia and in a matter of seconds the email is read. When an employee in New York needs assistance with a computer glitch, he calls a 1-800 phone number and the operator on the other end is sitting in a cubicle in Bombay. These communication advancements are things that we as a society are proud of, but what are the interpersonal costs? Are people really communicating with those who are right there in front of them? Are cultures able to understand each other better? Those are the themes that director, Alejandro González Iñárritu explores in his new movie, Babel.
Babel tells the stories of many characters, all of whom are connected to one another. It opens in a Moroccan home where a shepherd buys a rifle so he can shoot lurking jackals. His two sons take the rifle to practice their shots. They begin by aiming at nearby rocks, but in an effort to challenge themselves with items further away, a passing bus becomes a new target. Richard and Susan Jones (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are on vacation in Morocco when a bullet tears through the window of their bus, hitting Susan in the shoulder. With no access to medical attention the tour bus rushes to a local village to await help. This incident sets off four related stories – the Moroccan and American lead searches for the person who committed the horrific act, the story of a young deaf-mute in Japan, and the housekeeper in California who has to take her two young charges to her son’s wedding in Mexico.
The film’s title refers to the biblical story of the people in the city of Babel who try to build a tower up to the heavens to make themselves on par with God. They want to know all that He knows and do all that He does. However, as a punishment for this arrogant project, God destroys the tower and disperses the people throughout the planet, giving them all different languages and cultures so that no one can understand another.
Perhaps we as a global society have become as arrogant as the people in Babel. Do we think that we deserve an understanding of all of God’s doings? For much of the film, even those speaking the same language do not understand one another. Furthermore, language is not the only separating factor. Culture and religion are as well. The young Jones children have been raised by Amelia and understand Spanish however, when in Mexico they are introduced to an entirely new way of life. As they enter the country they ask their nanny’s nephew, Santiago (Gael García Bernal), if Mexico is dangerous. He answers with his tongue firmly planted inside his cheek that it is so dangerous because so many Mexicans live there. While playing with the other children, they are horrified to see Santiago break the head off of a chicken while the “native” children scream with delight.
Each one of these narratives carries the same theme – communication and what it means. Everyone wants to be heard and, probably more importantly, understood. Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), the deaf mute high schooler in Japan wishes so much that she could be heard. When people can’t understand her, she translates the feeling of isolation to the inability to connect with people. As a remedy, she tries to be touched, physically by anyone with whom she can get close. The need for physical attention becomes important to those who don’t feel as though they are being heard. Physicality becomes a language all its own. Susan and Richard Jones fight over something that neither one can articulate; however when Susan reaches over to touch her husband’s hand we know that they have a mutual understanding. Back in California, Susan and Richard’s children are being put to bed by Amelia (Adriana Barraza), the au pair who has cared for the children since they were born. Debbie Jones (Elle Fanning) is scared of what happened to her baby brother when he went to sleep, and cannot understand something which happened to someone she loved. She will not go to sleep without Amelia sitting on her bed stroking her hair.
Furthermore, although this movie seems to be telling four separate stories, all of the characters are connected to one another. In our media today, we are consumed by tales of interlocking stories – how people are connected fascinates us right now. Movies like the Oscar-winning Crash, and television shows like 6 Degrees and The Nine tell stories of people whose lives are inexplicably intertwined, and Babel is no exception. As the narrative continues the interweaving of the lives of all the characters becomes further apparent. In an age where no one seems to be personally connected to anyone, our art tries to remedy that. It gives back stories which tell audiences that no matter how disconnected one feels from another, there will common ground.
In the age of mass communication, instant gratification is also something that we expect. Digital cameras, high speed internet, on demand viewing are all examples of the need to get things when we want them and how we want them. This movie takes that desire for immediate satisfaction and distorts it. The time line of the movie is not straightforward, and the non-linearity of it is not apparent until the movie almost ends. The Mexican wedding clearly takes place over the course of a day. However, how long is it between the time that Susan gets shot and eventually gets saved? When does the shooting take place in relationship to Amelie bringing the children to Mexico? How long does it take for the shooters to be found? Iñárritu does not give the audience the same privileges to the audience that they might expect.
There is a lot more that separates people than just verbal language. Even if they are bordering societies, cultures can be worlds apart. That is something that should be taken into consideration as we head deeper into our global society. We have to remember that there still remains a lot to know about one another and we are not one large global society just because our information can cross oceans in a matter of seconds. Babel takes a conservative approach to the dawning of our global society and perhaps offers a cautionary warning that we should be careful, lest history repeat itself. As much as we think we have out fooled God because we think we can all understand each other, we should be a little less arrogant and realize that He probably knows something that we don’t.