Friday, June 29, 2012


Film: Babel
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel is the type of film that defies being summarized. There’s too much going on in this film and too much that doesn’t make any sense for a large portion of the proceedings. This doesn’t mean I didn’t like Babel because that would not be accurate. It also doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try to come up with a summary anyway, because that’s just what I do.

Essentially, Babel is a series of interconnected stories that take place around the world, ranging from places as divergent as Japan, Mexico, the U.S., and Morocco. While there appears to be no connection between these stories initially, we learn as we see more and more that there is a specific chain of events that link all of these disparate elements together. A simple action in one place leads to inevitable consequences in another.

In Morocco, the father of two young boys purchases a rifle to use in keeping jackals away from his goats. The boys, who tend the goats, are fascinated by the gun and fire it since they have been told it is capable of hitting a target as far away as 3 kilometers. The younger boy, showing off his skill, shoots at a tourist bus driving down the road, but believes he has missed. He hasn’t; the bullet strikes American tourist Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett), in Morocco with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt). We learn as the film progresses that they have lost a child to SIDS, and this trip is in part to attempt to heal the rift this has caused in their marriage.

So while the American couple deals with this, we also must deal with the consequences of this inadvertent and accidental shooting on the side of the boys who did it. We learn that the Moroccan police are of the “shoot first, shoot second, sort it out later” stripe as they brutalize the man who sold then gun, then go hunting for the current owners.

Meanwhile, across the world, we also spend time with the deaf daughter of the Japanese businessman who gave the gun away in the first place. While it is his action of giving this gun away that starts all of the other stories into motion, we deal with him only tangentially. Instead, we are more concerned with his daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). She finds herself awakening sexually, but is frustrated by the way she is treated because of her deafness. We also learn that her mother committed suicide recently.

Finally, we deal with the children of Susan and Richard Jones (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble). Their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is planning on returning to Mexico for her son’s wedding. However, the accident in Morocco keeps the Joneses overseas, and she cannot find anyone to watch the kids, so she takes them to Mexico with her. Because she does not have written permission from the parents, there are severe difficulties in crossing back into the United States, in part because her driver Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) drives away when he is being questioned by the border patrol.

Of course, none of this happens as I have written it here. Instead, we move back and forth from story to story, getting bits and pieces of each one, and not learning until quite a bit into the film how these stories are connected. It isn’t really until we are already invested in these four stories that we learn precisely how the actions of one person in one story affect the actions and behavior of others halfway across the world.

There are a number of themes running through this film, all of which come into play throughout. The first, naturally enough, is one of interconnectivity, that all of us are connected to each other. Throughout the film , we learn that the actions of one person, even a seemingly inconsequential action can have major ramifications somewhere else, something life changing or life threatening. Even something beneficial—the gift of a rifle to a skilled guide—can result in terrible tragedy through the fault of no one and nothing other than random chance.

As the title of the film suggests, another recurring theme is one of communication and the barriers to communication. Throughout the film, there are problems with even basic information being passed from one person to the next. In Morocco, Richard Jones cannot make himself understood by many of the natives. The police are more liable to shoot and bully than to ask for information or deal calmly with a situation. In Japan, Chieko deals constantly with her frustration at making herself understood in a world that almost demands the ability to hear. Similar problems with basic communication happen in the Mexico story as well, where communication would have staved off all of the problems.

Inarritu’s film is challenging mostly because of the manner in which the story is told. The broken narrative—four broken narratives actually—make this a film that requires close attention for the bulk of its running time.

It’s also a step up in terms of difficulty and mastery of the form from Inarritu’s previous film, Amores Perros. For one thing, a fourth story has been included here. Additionally, rather than showing each story in its entirety with points of connection, this film shows us the entire narrative in a style that requires us to put the pieces together for ourselves. It is ultimately much more rewarding because of its difficulty and because of the need to pay such careful attention to what we see.

For as much as I liked Amores Perros, I have even more admiration for Babel. I’ll be adding Biutiful to my queue in the future, as this is a director I think I need to start paying attention to.

Why to watch Babel: More evidence of interconnectivity.
Why not to watch: Lose focus for a minute, be lost for the duration.


  1. I didn't care for this much when I saw it. But I might need to check it out again. The thing my mind always immediately goes to with this movie is the naked Japanese girl... because there is a lot of naked Japanese girl in this movie.

    1. There is. I've considered making you watch Amores Perros if only because it does that thing where a bunch of stories converge at one point, and you seem to really like that.

  2. The only movie I've seen by this director is Biutiful, which I as opposed to many others loved. I'm definitely up for more. This one is on the list, but my firs priority is 21 grams. I hope you'll enjoy Biutiful as much as I did. Though "enjoy" might be the wrong word to use; it's not an altogether easy watch.

    1. I forgot 21 Grams is his, too. I suppose I should watch that as well.

      I'm thinking his films aren't feel-goods. Amores Perros sure wasn't, but it was pretty impressive.

  3. I liked Babel, but I found myself least interested in the storyline with the big name stars. Instead the Japanese storyline was my favorite. While the Mexican storyline was predictable, it also was interesting.

    I would place Babel third after Amores Perros and 21 Grams, though. While the middle story of Amores Perros dragged for me, the first and last stories were better than any of the stories in Babel, to me. As for 21 Grams, is like Babel in that it has the stories all intermixed. It goes an extra step and has the sequences of events also all intermixed. It's one you have to pay attention to. I have not seen Biutiful.

    1. At the risk of sounding like an aging pervert, I'll agree and say that the Japanese story was among the top here. I'd have thought that without the nudity, too. Of all the stories, it's the one that has that slice of mystery in figuring out what happened to the mom.

      I liked all the stories, though. Of them all, the Mexican storyline was my least favorite, mostly because I could see where it was going and it despite that, it still felt a bit unresolved.

  4. I'm having really good luck with "recent" movies from the 1001 List lately. I watched In the Loop yesterday morning and I loved it. I was thinking of re-evaluating my favorite movie of 2009, but that's a tough year!

    And Babel finally showed up at the library after I requested it a week ago. I normally wouldn't have started such a long movie as late as I started Babel but I have been looking forward to it. I was up until way after midnight, and I had no trouble staying awake because it's an amazing movie. (I crashed within a few minutes after it was over.)

    A really beautiful, intricate, amazing film! I was enjoying it, but I think I realized I was watching something special when Chieko said "I'm deaf not blind" to the referee! And then she flipped him off! And then, flashing her snatch at the boys in the food court.

    Chieko was awesome. A real Menace II Society!

    And now I've only got one more movie before I'm done with all the movies from 2006 on the List. And I wonder if there's any way that The Last King of Scotland can be as good as Babel.

    1. Given the choice, I'd rewatch Babel over The Last King of Scotland. That says nothing about the quality of either movie. Last King is a brutal, painful watch, something that I've seen twice now and probably will never watch again. But again, that's all about what is shown and not the quality of it.

      Forest Whittaker is incredible in it, though, and James McAvoy holds his own.

      You and I, evidently, like Babel a lot more than most people.