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Babel – simply a masterpiece

The randomness of life

The randomness of life

Babel – Alejandro Gonzalez Inárritu

(BBC Prize Review)

Simply a masterpiece: of conception and writing, direction, performance and technical accomplishment integrating the whole. If not already, Inárritu will be one of the great directors. This is a work of consummate warmth and humanity – beyond language, beyond religion, beyond politics. In a world bedevilled and threatened by all three, Babel is a salutary work of art that reminds us that human beings of all cultures and beliefs can display instinctive qualities of concern for the pain and suffering of another and a respect for their dignity. Can cherish, nurture and protect children as parent or loving adult. And its fundamental message, idealistic if you will, is that we doubt these profound human truths only through fear – of the unknown, the different, the strange. We allow language, rules, laws, uniforms, social structures to blind us to, and make us retreat from, the best of our natural human instincts.

Yet Inárritu’s searching vision quietly, almost subversively also highlights the appalling disparity in human equality, the obscene cultural and political equation that values one human life far more highly than another, simply because of nationality, affluence or culture. He shows us that human respect and dignity, honour, has nothing to do with material wealth. Indeed quite the opposite, in that it is affluent white Europeans out of fear and selfishness who behave as badly as anyone in the film – and to one of their own. A fact as disturbingly believable as it is unpleasant to watch. Nor in Innaritu’s perspective is there any sense that these qualities derive from religion. Rather, religion is shown more as an expression of this instinctive respect for others than the force that generates it.

Working again with the superb Amores Peres and 21 Grams screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Inárritu takes the strands of three related narratives and weaves them together. Here every thread connects with the rest to create a single whole whose overall strength lies in the perfect integration of each fragile strand. Arriaga himself is a creative force to reckon with, his other recent screenplay being for the superb Tommy Lee Jones’s directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Characteristically Inárritu fragments these narratives in time for powerful dramatic effect and yet never leaves us uncertain or confused. This intercutting between story lines adds tension and poignancy to each, creating a thematic tone to the film that simply absorbs you from the first to the last frame. This is a long film, with a steady unhurried pace you willingly accept as inevitable and simply fall in step with. The narrative links between the three stories only emerge gradually through the film though the underlying theme builds consistently from the beginning.

Youssef and Ahmed, two scampish young sons of a Moroccan herdsman are experimenting with a high-powered rifle newly acquired by their father to kill jackals. Recklessly but innocently Youssef fires towards a tourist bus thinking it out of range. On the bus are American couple Susan and Richard (Blanchett and Pitt) trying to recover from the trauma of a lost baby. Susan is seriously wounded by Youseff’s random shot. The bus diverts to tour guide Anwar’s village where a local vet stitches the wound to temporarily stem the bleeding.

Cut to San Diego: Richard and Susan’s children Robert and Jane, are being looked after by Amelia (Adriana Barraza) their Mexican family nanny. Richard calls from Morocco to tell Amelia they will be delayed and she must stay with the children. It is Amelia’s son’s wedding day and when she fails to find someone to leave the children with, decides to take them with her across the border, driven by her nephew Santiago (Gabriel Garcia Bernal).

Cut to Tokyo: beautiful, pubescent deaf-mute Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is alienated from her recently widowed father and walking a fragile tightrope between child and woman. The challenges of her disability and facing the doubts of womanhood alone since her mother’s suicide, combine to make Chieko’s desire for sexual awakening a form of rebellion that makes her heartrendingly vulnerable. Her efforts to seduce first her dentist and later a policeman looking for her father are poignant, and painfully gauche).

The film then cuts to and from these interwoven story lines. The other tourists in the bus uncomfortable in the heat and wrongly, fearful for their lives, eventually abandon the couple in the village, Susan’s life still at risk. Amelia’s son’s wonderfully celebratory Mexican wedding exposes a delighted Robert and Jane to a noisy, exciting, unfamiliar world. While Chieko, knickers discarded under her skirt, provocatively flashes young men who ply her and her friends with drinks and drugs.

The increasingly desperate Richard must rely totally on the help of Anwar and his family as politics hampers rescue efforts. Returning from the wedding, Santiago Amelia and the children are stopped at the border. Santiago resists arrest by driving off and eventually abandons them at night in no-mans-land at the Mexicali border. And Chieko reveals the denial about her mother’s death that fuels her insecurity and sadness.

These narrative threads are gradually drawn closer and closer together to show the way in which apparently random events can be connected to create unexpected and unintended outcomes. But what truly unites these disparate events is Inárritu’s underlying theme – the way that our natural, best human instincts become distrusted, distorted and lost under the pressure and fear of the stranger and the unknown. The further individual action is distanced from individual human instinct by adherence to social roles like policemen, border guards, officialdom etc, the more cruel, inhuman, and unjust these actions become. And language often divides, distorts and distances people from one another and everyone from the truth and a sense of justice.

Inárritu’s assured direction is underpinned by superb editing from Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise (21 Grams, Traffic, Good Night and Good Luck). The ‘grammar’ of editing that Inárritu employs is extraordinary: there are visual ‘words’, ‘exclamations’, ‘phrases’, ‘sentences’ even ‘paragraphs’ of images cut to a cadence and rhythm perfectly matching the tone required. This is technical mastery fully at the service of artistic vision. Sound, cinematography and excellent, unselfconscious performances combine to make this one the most technically satisfying, beautifully accomplished films of this or any other year.

Inárritu shows fragile, vulnerable human beings, distanced by fear from their own best instincts, struggling to come to terms with the random dangers and threats an indifferent and hostile world throws up. As in Arriaga’s Three Burials, an unintended but reckless act, the butterfly’s wings of chaos theory that sets off a seemingly inexorable series of far distant disastrous events, is a gunshot. The overwhelming sense of human beings being more united by the common reality of the fragility of the human condition than divided by cultural, social or any other differences, is movingly conveyed by this at times, luminous film. Inárritu portrays beautifully many moments of such tender, fragile, raw humanity that they bring tears of recognition to your eyes. Even his dedication of the film to his two children “the brightest lights in the darkest night” is profoundly moving and entirely apposite. Yes, simply a masterpiece.

(February 2007)

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