The story of the tower of Babel, which is one of the most intriguing of Biblical parables, is a lesson on the danger, and above all the insubstantiality, of pride. The tale of Nimrod and his followers, a group of Babylonians who worked together to build a tower that would stretch all the way up to heaven, is also, fundamentally, a myth about the origins of cultural difference. For these Babylonians were able to work together, without conflict, because they all shared the same language. This unity was their strength, but it was also their undoing. For, as the story goes, when God looked down and saw his people boasting with such awful pride that they would presume to approach heaven without his consent, he smote them. And, to the delight of postmodernist grad students everywhere, his punishment was to magically impose new languages on the Babylonians, so that they wouldn’t understand each other, and they’d never again be able to work together, as one.
In acclaimed director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s fraught and disturbing Babel, we are asked to consider the persistence of God’s wrath. As in Inarritu’s previous efforts Amores Perros and 21 Grams, (of which Babel is meant to be considered the third in a “trilogy” of sorts), disparate stories interweave throughout the film, playing with temporality and narrative while building an over-arching thematic coherence. If the first film was about heartbreak, (Amores Perros translates roughly to ‘Love’s a Bitch’), and the second was about grief, (the titular twenty-one grams are, supposedly, the weight of the soul as it departs the body), Babel is indisputably about communication. We don’t understand one another, goes the basic message of the film, partly because we don’t listen to one another, and partly because we don’t care to try. We fail, over and over again, the film suggests, to communicate what we need to say; or, when we do manage to speak our minds, we are either castigated for our openness, or simply ignored.
Inarritu is an extraordinarily gifted filmmaker in his use of different films to explore different characters, (35mm for one, 16mm for another), his startling insistence on handheld cameras, and his persistence in plumbing the depths of the human condition at the expense of being, well, entertaining, suggest a serious artist, and an artist to be taken seriously. But, being a serious artist does not necessarily make your work successful. And while Babel does boast some scenes of striking beauty, and at least one performance of searing intensity, it is in the end a deeply unsatisfying film.
Opening with the uncomfortable tale of two Moroccan boys who, (apparently because they are too ignorant to understand what they are doing), shoot at a bus just to test their new rifle, Babel begins with senseless horror and never lets up. The two boys have destroyed their lives, and every once in a while during the film, we will cut back to Morocco to see just how horrible it is getting for them. Meanwhile, the bullet they fired into the bus has struck an unfortunate American tourist played by Cate Blanchett. Her husband, a frantic Brad Pitt, struggles to secure help for her as she bleeds and wails, even as the other tourists try repeatedly to wash their hands of the whole sorry affair.
Back in America, Pitt and Blanchett’s children are bundled up by their doting nanny and taken down to Mexico for a wedding celebration. On their way home, they are stopped at the border by wary guards, precipitating a bizarre series of events ending with yet another desperate tragedy. And, in what appears until very late in the film to be a totally unrelated aside, (and then when we find out how it’s connected we are by no means satisfied that this is anything other than a tenuous association), we follow a day in the life of a deaf Japanese teenager as she struggles to overcome her mother’s suicide by acting out her sexuality in rather overt ways. This is the plot, such as it is.
The great, overarching question one asks during a film such as this is: where is the light? Throughout the feature-length documentary that accompanies this edition of Babel, Inarritu makes great noise about his desire to explore the “common ground” shared by each of his characters, and about the way his film demonstrates the reality of a unifying human condition. “Pain is universal… but so is hope”, reads the tagline on the back of the DVD. Such an axiom seems perfectly plausible. But, by the end of this overlong affair, at 143 minutes, this much sadness and tragedy becomes somewhat numbing, every character, has little left but tragedy, loss, guilt, shame and grief.
This 2-Disc Collector’s Edition features the film on one disc and a full, feature-length documentary on the second. The documentary is illuminating and at times quite fascinating, but it seems designed for film students and it appears unlikely that many even ardent fans of Babel will feel compelled to sit through it. That said, if you are a great fan of Inarritu and have a particular interest in the technique and craft of filmmaking, this is quite an exciting bonus feature, indeed.