Political Film Society - Babel

PFS Film Review


BabelBabel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, illustrates how simple accidents in one part of today’s globalized world can profoundly touch the lives of individuals who are thousands of miles away, yet governments and media still think inside the box, trapping almost everyone into badly constructed images of reality. Although the biblical concept of “babel” is an explanation for the mutual unintelligibility of language, the film goes beyond language, focusing on cultural, economic, political, and social babel, using the cinematic method of shortcuts. Had a prequel been filmed first, the earliest small event was the arrival of Amelia (played by Adriana Barraza) as an illegal alien from México in the United States and her employment in San Diego, first as housekeeper and later as a nanny for the two children of Richard (played by Brad Pitt) and Susan (played by Cate Blanchett). A later incident occurs when the wife of Yasujiro (played by Kôji Yakusho) commits suicide, whereupon he goes on a hunting trip in Morocco and gives his rifle to the tour guide at the conclusion of his visit in order to thank him for his kindness. Yasujiro then returns to Tokyo to live with his teenage deaf-mute daughter, Chieko (played by Rinko Kikuchi), who is coming of age sexually. Amelia has recently made plans to be present in México for the wedding of her son. Before embarking on a tour of Morocco, the San Diego couple made arrangements for someone else to care for their children, Mike (played by Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (played by Elle Fanning), in Amelia’s absence. But filmviewers learn these events only later. When the film begins, the tour guide sells the rifle to Abdullah (played by Mustapha Rachidi) so that his sons Yussef (played by Boubker Ali El Caid) and Ahmed (played by Said Tarchani), who work as goatherders, can kill predatory jackals. The San Diego couple is in Morocco, entering the desert region where the goatherding family lives. However, the person who has agreed to take care of Mike and Debbie calls at the last minute to renege, whereupon Amelia tries in vain to find a substitute. Accordingly, she goes to México anyway, hoping to reenter the country illegally again, this time with the children, who go along and enjoy the festivities. However, plans go awry when the goatherding boys engage in target practice from a hilltop at autos and busses that pass below. One bullet pierces the bus in which the San Diego couple is traveling, and Susan is hit. Richard insists that his wife must be cared for immediately, as she is bleeding, and a local medical person sews up her wound to stop the flow of blood. Richard asks a friend in the United States to contact the American Embassy in Morocco for help, but there is a delay that frustrates other travelers on the bus, whose patience is exhausted within an hour, and the bus departs without the San Diegans. However, a crime has been committed. The Moroccan police track down the tour guide, who identifies the person who gave him the rifle and the person who bought the rifle. While Tokyo police try to track down Yasujiro in order to verify that the rifle was not purchased on the black market, Moroccan police are on Abdullah’s trail. Meanwhile, the wedding festivities end, and her nephew, Santiago (played by Gael García Bernal), drives Amelia and the two children to the border, where he crashes into the fence, drives at top speed, deposits his three passengers in the middle of the desert at night, and disappears. In the morning, Amelia tries to get the attention of the Border Patrol; after she is arrested, she tries to have the authorities rescue the children. In Tokyo, the police contact Chieko, and within a few hours she summons Mitsu (played by Yuko Murata), a police officer with whom she intends to have sex. Soon after he arrives at her apartment, she strips, hoping for sex, cries when he demurs, and then he remains until she stops crying. As he leaves the apartment building headed for a bar, he runs into Yasujiro, who confirms that he indeed gave the Moroccan tour guide the rifle. The American government, at first suspecting that a terrorist is responsible, contacts the media before sending a helicopter; then Susan is flown to a hospital in Casablanca, where a local surgeon performs a life-saving operation. Much of the film demonstrates the modus operandi of different governments. Tokyo detectives are portrayed as courteous and compassionate. The Moroccan authorities get at the truth by beating suspects (a practice followed as well when Abdullah disciplines his two children), and they also shoot at Abdullah and his sons, who are trying to flee the scene until the young boy responsible for the shot gives himself up. The American Embassy in Morocco delays action for unspecified “political” reasons, but finally sends a helicopter and evidently arranges for a Moroccan physician to be on call in Casablanca. Border Patrol officers do their duty, holding up Mexicans who are suspected of wanting to enter the United States illegally and arresting Amelia. However, two subtexts are gently if eloquently presented. First, is the way in which the American government and news media leap to the conclusion that terrorists are involved before checking out the facts. Indeed, the film could have gone on to point out how the “war on terrorism” has been portrayed by the American government and media as a fight against persons of the Islamic faith, who in the film are instead portrayed as decent and helpful people with no such political agenda. Director Iñárritu is doubtless aware of a Spanish court that in 2005 convicted thirty-four alleged Al-Qaeda operatives, including three charged as accomplices of the World Trade Center bombings of 9/11/2001 that killed several persons of Spanish nationality; afterward, the prosecutor told the press that the trial proved that the legal approach to combat terrorism is preferable to "wars and detention camps," obviously contrasting Spain’s counterterrorism methods with those of the United States. The second subtext, which is considerably more graphic when Amelia sobs in front of a faceless Border Patrol agent, begging not to be deported after spending sixteen years of her life as a caretaker, including rearing two American children from their birth with love. That illegal aliens enter the United States because of a labor shortage, work hard, yet are treated as criminals is well known. Whether the American political system will respond in a different manner remains to be seen. In short, the most profound babel of the film does not involve language; what is at stake is whether governments can handle the globalized world by recognizing the universality of human rights. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Babel for best film on human rights of 2006. MH

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