Friday, 21 September 2007


Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Both guys did Amor Es Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003).
Producers : John Kilik and Steve Golin. Year 2006.
“Babel” means bedlam which is “confusion” or “total madness” in Spanish.
For me it is the best portrayal of contrasts in a film; from extreme poverty to extreme richness plus has a Hollywood mega star, Brad Pritt.
Let me start by saying I am shocked by the bad reviews Babel received. I am not going to cite them for that will highlight their content. My intention is not to review other reviewers but celebrate something that I think is underrated and quite beautiful.

Today’s feature movies are normally about Stars acting a role. And since Babel is played in Third World (Mexico, Morocco) and wealthy countries (USA, Japan) you have to judge it according to it’s exotic connection.
The usual tendency is for a character (through the senses of a famous Hollywood actor) finding themselves via love (“Wild Orchid” in Brazil, 1990; “Out of Africa”, in Kenya, 1986), spying (Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” in Vietnam, recently) or poverty, economics, politics (“Last King of Scotland”, Uganda, 2006; “Black Diamond” , Sierra Leone, 2006) which rears back to the bygone era of colonialism (“African Queen” and “Zulu” starring Humphrey Borgat, Katherine Hepburn and Michael Caine, respectively). Not forgetting the abhorring Tarzan series.
Babel impressed me because it is about the subjects not matinee idols; nor “playing the role.”
Even Spike Lee (whose material and concerns are US blacks) has not touched the taboo subject: poor, developing countries. Bollywood and Lagowood (India and Nigerian films) are in the third world, but, there is, a but. Something needs to happen to this super charged industry. One common complaint is the length (Bollywood), the farce (Lagowood) or exaggeration (both). But fantasy, fun and exaggeration have a place in movie making.
Legendary Hollywood scriptwriter, William Goldman (All The President's Men, Absolute Power, Marathon Man, Butch and the Sundance Kid) says (“Which Lie Did I Tell?”, 2000) that Hollywood films reinforce and reassure; while Independent ones, unsettle. It is this combination that is somehow achieved in Babel.
Both Guillermo Arriaga (the scriptwriter) and Gonzalez Inarritu (director) have tried doing what the Spanish singer Manu Chao is doing in World music or German director Wim Wenders and US musician Ry Cooder did with Cuban “Buena Vista Social Club” in the late 1990’s. They brought out an unknown world, that is rich, superfluous, entertaining and unsettling.
Thus, the recent upsurge of World Cinema has stimulated and showed the way forward for the film industry in the way they localise their stories. "City of God", "Carandiru" and "Bus 174", all use crime to focus on Brazil; "Amores Perros", ply dog-fighting as a metaphor of love and family discord in Mexico; while “Totsi” and “Catch a Fire” show us today’s and yesterday's South Africa. Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene has always portrayed class issues in West Africa and upcoming, yet to be known, Tanzanian director Josiah Kibira illuminates Africans and immigration in the USA. They are amazing films but are limited in the sense of being “Best Foreign Films” as the Hollywood monopolists dub World Cinema.
Foreign, indeed.
Babel’s longer step is it’s combination of World Cinema and Hollywood.
It is Arriaga’s narrative that does it.
A rich and recently widowed Japanese tourist on a hunting holiday in Morocco gives a Bedouin guide (that has impressed him, and this is common with tourists, to leave a camera, a bag, even clothes with the nice native) a shot-gun, as present. Weeks later, the Bedouin sells (poverty) the shot-gun to another villager.
This villager (a shepherd) has two adolescent sons who use the weapon to shoot jackals eating the goats (they should be in school, but that is Third World reality). The two lads practise and the smallest (and best crack) accidentally maims a tourist in a far away bus.
The setting is Morocco and we see the events through the children's point of view, not the tourists (who happen to be Brad Pritt and wife, Cate Blanchett). Boys live with their harrowing secret. Their lives are filled with secrets. One of them secretly, watches his sister as she bathes, for example. Family stuff.
Family, indeed.
In the USA, a Mexico nanny has been left with two American kids. Parents gone on holiday. The couple are going through a marriage crisis. She is very grumpy and while on holiday in Morocco gets shot.
“An American tourist has been shot by terrorists.”
How topical can one get?
Then there is the gun source and Japan. Two teenage deaf-mutes. (Reminded me of the late sensitive American writer Carson McCullers – and the way she depicted misfits and the alienated). The main protagonist has a brooding father whose wife died in suspicious circumstances. She has serious problems (add her disability) and is flirting with boys and men constantly. In the end the Japanese police want to question the father about a gun: at the centre of an international enquiry.
Sounds familiar?
Cut to Mexico.
Gael Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros, Motorcycle Diaries) is the nephew of the nanny left with the two kids. He takes his auntie and the youngsters over the border to San Diego for a wedding party “ to experience Mexican life.”
I don’t want to tell you everything in case you decide to rent the DVD but the course of crass events show us the problems of immigration and racism.
Brad Pritt and his heavily bleeding wife experience Morocco in ways they never expected, including, witchcraft. The two shepherd boys are arrested and parents are beaten up by the Morocco police (typical Third World scenario). There is a death; there are solutions. A chopper picks up the injured wife, so a happy ending.
The Mexican nanny is deported and the Japanese deaf-mute gives us a hint of what happened to her dead mother.
Everything is connected. The film is in four original languages. Children, adults, outsiders, families are all connected to each other. Nothing stands or lives in isolation. That’s why this is my year's favourite movie.
Moral? “If you want to be understood start to listen” (said the film’s flyer). Who should listen? And listen to what?
Read a review of Babel from Channel 4 Film.

1 comment:

NeoAuteur said...

I like the movie too. Nice blog.