What does a deaf-mute Japanese teen, a Moroccan shepherd family, a Wasp (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) American couple in crisis and a Mexican nanny have in common? Babel manages to dovetail these otherwise distant contexts into a breathtaking journey across the world.
In 2006, Iñarritu provided a framework where a single event influences a variety of people dispersed throughout the world. In this sense, Babel anticipated domino effect movies and TV series, such as the fabulous Cloud Atlas (2012), where characters across time periods are connected through a song, and Touch (2012), where a maths genius kid is able to read through invisible inter-personal connections in the world and foresees the future. However, six years before them, Babel contextualised transcontinental chain reactions into a more realistic picture, describing issues that still affect us today. After watching it, your perception of the world will change.
If you know this director from his latest movies, as I did when I casually ran into this piece during a lazy Sunday afternoon on Netflix, I’ll warn you: is nothing like them. Forget the hyper-dynamism and ironic decadence of Birdman (2014), or the epic narrative and imagery of The Revenant (2015). Babel is a cold, blunt piece of direction with no fuss around the edges. Instead of slapping you in the face with hardcore scenes of Di Caprio wrestling with a bear and sleeping inside a horse’s carcass, Iñarritu punches you in the stomach with reality; a reality which, if you don’t recognise it in your own life, will make you reflect sadly on the modern world’s dynamics. If you think Birdman was edgy, be ready to recast your point of view.
However, something that does span his catalogue of work is his ability with the camera: he is able to switch from scene to scene nimbly and elegantly, interchanging intense close-up with panoramic shootings, including masterful long shots where colors, lights and sounds intermingle to create powerful scenes – the shot of Chieko in the club is particularly remarkable. All this accompanied by an impressive cast which includes Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, who play the couple in crisis.
The story twists and turns form Morocco to the USA, going through Japan and Mexico; the audience follows the butterfly effect of a tragic event which involves all four situations. Despite being hit by the same event, the people are affected in strikingly different ways, as diverse as the contexts in which they live. By drawing this connection, Iñarritu explores the realities of these people, focusing on topical elements that make us reflects on our differences across the world.
The movie in this sense is masterful. He does not deliver a superficial framework where you can clearly see the victim and oppressor. Undoubtedly, there are causes and consequences, but there are no victims or executioners. What we see is the outcome of bad odds in situations which are already tragic in their own way. It is here that you get a sense of how differences matter and how certain conditions (such as poverty or disability) affect our reality. Iñarritu compares characters’ childhood experiences; in some places children can live a life far from crude realities, but in other places children learn to be an adult too soon. We observe how violence is received in different ways ; some places it is an aspect of everyday life, while in other contexts it has been so forgotten that when it happens in front of their eyes it does not seem real.
And, finally, the movie hits us with different images of human contact, affection and solidarity: how people behave in front of the pain of another individual and how we interact with other humans. Notable is the character of the Japanese teen who tackles common problems of her age in addition to her deaf-mute state, which amplifies the sense of weirdness and loneliness that you may feel at that age.
Babel is the final movie of a trilogy that included previous Iñarritu’s works, 21 Grams (2003) and Amores Perros (2000), which followed the same international flow of Babel. If you are up for challenging movies and if you enjoy Babel, they may suit you too.