There’s a famous story from the Book of Genesis in the Bible that is known as the ‘Tower of Babel.’ It’s a mythic story about how human beings were once speaking the same language around the world and were able to communicate seamlessly enough where they were able to build a magnificent tower to reach the heavens. Humanity is united and in peace with each other given that they share the same language, culture, and geographical location.
After the ‘great flood’ washed away and receded, humanity wanted to build the tower of Babel in order to reach God and the heavens. In the story, God is befuddled by this show of hubris and ego that has united humanity together in building this tower to reach his presence, and decides to make humanity speak different languages, and separates people into different tribes located in different places around the world. The confusion of languages has a major impact on humanity causing a breakdown in communication, and leading to the future certainties of conflict, violence, and overall suffering.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has created a beautiful film named after this allegorical Biblical event titled, Babel (2006), which was released over a decade ago, and was a winner of Best Original Score at the Oscars as well as six other Academy Award nominations. The film was released to critical acclaim and has garnered a lot of recognition for its’ themes of globalization, cultural and language miscommunication, and the powerlessness of people to control critical events that happen in their lives.
‘Babel’ features an ensemble cast of actors from around the world, which include Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yashuko, and Adriana Barraza. ‘Babel’ is an intriguing film in that the characters and situations in the film take place in three different parts of the world but are interrelated with each other. The sequences of events that occur are out of order but are shown to connect with each other as the film goes on. As for the countries where the film is set, they include Morocco, Japan, Mexico, and the United States. A lot of credit must be given to Mr. Inarritu for weaving these three storylines together without making it too hard to follow or too farcical to be believed. The aspects that make this film unique are the interweaving storylines, the excellent acting, and the themes and questions that ‘Babel’ poses to its’ audience.
The stories that make up ‘Babel’ show how unrelated and seemingly random events at the time can end up turning people’s lives upside down. The overall plot of ‘Babel’ starts out with a Japanese businessman giving a rifle to his hunting companion / tour guide in Morocco as an innocuous gift. This event seems harmless as a moment between two men of different countries and cultures sharing a gift but which causes different events of the movie to unfold over three different continents.
The hunting rifle that makes its’ way to Morocco, is eventually sold by Hassan Ibrahim, who receives the rifle from his old Japanese hunting partner and the rifle ends up in the hands of a goat-herder named Abdullah. Perhaps not using the best judgment as a grandfather should but not seeing a problem with it, Abdullah gives over the hunting rifle to his two sons, Yussef and Ahmed, who want to use it to ward off jackals from killing the goats in their flock.
The boys who are only teenagers and are not skilled with weapons end up practicing the range of the rifle and end up practicing the firing of the rifle on rocks, a moving car, and then the bus. The two boys do not really know the danger that they’re playing with and they don’t know who is on the bus they’re firing the rifle at. The Western tourists who are travelling through Morocco are also unaware as to what is about to happen and are trying to enjoy their trip to a foreign country. Susan, played by Cate Blanchett, is an American woman sleeping on that bus filled with Western tourists and is trying to get some rest when she is shot in the neck accidentally by one of the Moroccan boys with the hunting rifle.
Her husband, Richard, played by Brad Pitt, is caught unaware of what happens to his wife, Susan, but quickly catches up to the reality that his wife is severely wounded in a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language, and he doesn’t have control of the situation. After losing their third child recently to the SIDS disease, Richard and Susan’s marriage is on the rocks and they took the trip to Morocco to get the spark back in their love life. In some scenes of the film, they seem angry, confused, and emotionally distraught after the tragic death of their infant child.
While Richard and Susan are on vacation in Morocco as a means to save their marriage, their two children are in the care of their long-term nanny who is originally from Mexico. Amelia (played by Adriana Barraza) is put into a difficult situation after Susan’s injured state becomes known. She is an undocumented person working in the United States illegally but she has been a nanny and housekeeper for Richard and Susan for many years. She treats their children like her own son and daughter after being a personal caretaker for them. It is made clear to the audience that Adriana has been in the U.S. for over a decade and a half and she has close ties to the American family.
During the film, Adriana is put into a very difficult situation, as she has to go back to Mexico for her son’s wedding but is unable to leave Richard and Susan’s children by themselves at the house in California. Because Richard can’t leave Susan’s bedside, they are delayed in their arrival back to San Diego. Against Richard’s wishes, Adriana decides to take their children with her to Mexico for the evening to enjoy the wedding of her son. Everything is fine for Adriana and the children at the wedding until her nephew, Santiago, decides to drink heavily during the celebration. He is shown to be intoxicated before driving on the way back to U.S.-Mexico border with Adriana and the children causing a number of unfortunate events that upends the lives of all those who are involved in his serious mistake.
The last part of the storyline takes place in Japan and focuses mainly on a teenage girl named Chieko Wataya (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Chieko is deaf and is unable to hear the outside world. On top of that, her mother recently committed suicide, which Chieko became the first witness to leaving her traumatized and inconsolable. She struggles in her attempts to relate to people anymore and is frustrated with boys her age. It is implied that her father and Chieko don’t have the best relationship with each other and haven’t discussed the traumatic event of her mother’s suicide.
During this storyline, it becomes clear that Chieko is confused, lonely, and looking to receive love from a father-like figure since her own father has been so absent in her life. Without spoiling the ending of this storyline, it is also revealed that Chieko’s father is the one to originally give the hunting rifle to the Moroccan man, Hassan Ibrahim, who he met on his trip there. The police eventually question Chieko’s father about why he sold his rifle to Hassan, and how Susan’s wounded state has become a major political point of contention between the U.S. and Moroccan governments.
Overall, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu does an excellent job of bringing these four storylines over three continents to life, and is able to tie them together seamlessly. ‘Babel’ is a story of human beings living their lives in their own ways within their own cultures but who get caught up in external events beyond their control. Inarritu is able to capture how interconnected our world is today in the early stages of the 21st century whether we would like to be aware of it or not. Seemingly unrelated events to each other are able to cause powerful effects that can change people’s lives when they least expect them.
A Japanese man goes on a hunting trip in Morocco, enjoys his Moroccan hunter’s company, and gives him a gift. That Moroccan man sells the rifle to a local goat-herder who lets his two sons practice with the weapon, and they fire the gun consecutively without knowing the damage it can do. The boys, not trying to do harm intentionally, end up shooting accurately at a bus that happens to be filled with Western tourists. An American woman who is catching some sleep catches a stray bullet and starts to bleed to death. She has to seek help from the local Moroccans in the village, and her wounded status causes a political feud between the U.S. – Moroccan governments over whether or not the act was ‘terrorism.’
While she’s recovering from her wounds, her housekeeper half a world away takes her children to Mexico to see her son get married at a wedding. Her nephew uses poor judgment on the drive back to the U.S. from Mexico and makes a fateful decision that changes Adriana and the children’s lives. ‘Babel’ was one of the first movies of the 21st century to really capture the phenomenon of globalization, and how actions that happen half a world away can affect other people’s lives directly. In this movie, we see how people try to do their best as people do, and often times don’t mean to do harm to others intentionally.
Sometimes, people can get caught up in making decisions that they think are good at the time but end up having the opposite effect. ‘Babel’ is not a simple black and white film with truly good or truly evil people. This is a film that understands that there are various shades of grey to life, and that it is difficult to control everything that happens to us and the people in our lives.
Overall, ‘Babel’ is an emotionally charged film that reminds us how people, things, and events can be misinterpreted. When you as an individual come from different cultural and language backgrounds, there are things that are likely to be lost in translation with another person of a different background. Unfortunately, miscommunication is apart of life, and problems are going to occur when people are unable to understand and connect with each other even if they do speak the same language with each other.
As the Biblical story goes, humanity ended up being divided by different languages after trying to be unified in their desire to build up a singular tower to the heavens. We are said to have been punished for our hubris and ego, which caused us to be separated from each other as we were spread out intentionally across the globe.
The audience is left to wonder at the end of ‘Babel’ if there is a truly happy or sad ending to take note of. The plain truth of the ending to me is that ‘Babel’ purposely shows all the elements of the human experience from Chieko’s joy at going to a rave party with her friends to Adriana’s pure despair at losing Richard and Susan’s children in the Mexican desert.
‘Babel’ shows us that life has its’ inevitable ups and downs, and that we can only control so much about our own lives, and many things are often out of our control yet still happen to affect us deeply regardless. Still, this brilliant film captures the resilience of its’ characters who try to make amends for their mistakes, and want to become better as they figure out the complexities and difficulties that make up life. I highly recommend ‘Babel’ to others and hope that it will get the recognition it deserves for years to come.