Friday, December 10, 2010

BABEL (2006): A Circular Narrative

A wealthy Japanese gentleman (Koji Yakusho), while on a hunting trip in Morocco, gifts his prize rifle to his native hunting guide for services rendered.  Shortly thereafter, his wife commits suicide by shooting herself in the head, and he is left alone to raise his deaf teenage daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi).  The rifle is soon sold to a goat herder* and to be used by his two teenage sons, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), to keep jackals away from the flock.  The boys, still in the process of maturing and not yet aware of the consequences of their own actions, test the range of the rifle by firing from a long distance at a tourist bus that happens to be driving by.  The youngest brother is such a good shot that the bullet actually does pierce through the body of the bus and strike the wife (Cate Blanchett) of a wealthy white American (Brad Pitt).  This couple on the bus had been experiencing marital difficulties and it wasn’t a convenient time for one of them to get shot.  The wife is mortally wounded and has to be brought to a native village for treatment.  When word gets out that an American woman is shot, the immediate assumption is that terrorists carried out the shooting.  Thus an international incident has taken place.  Meanwhile, the American couple have two small children in San Diego staying with their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Santiago), who we learn later has been staying in the United States illegally.  Since the parents return is now delayed and since the nanny’s son is soon to get married in Mexico, she is forced to bring the two children with her to the wedding.  When returning to the United States in a car driven by her drunken nephew, custom officials hold up the car.  As the custom officials are suspicious and rude, and as the nephew is concerned about again being ticketed for drunken driving, he makes a break for it by driving through the barricades.  Soon after crossing the border, he then abandons his aunt and the two children in a desert area and is never heard from again.
As a result of all of this, we have a deaf teenage girl who is emotionally scarred and whose father does not have the time to closely supervise.  She acts out by trying to seduce older men and behaving inappropriately.  Fortunately, she is never raped.  The father in the end embraces the daughter (whose standing naked out on their high rise balcony) and we can be fairly sure that she will get the help that she needs.  We have a Moroccan family that is now being hunted down by the police.  The older of the two sons is killed, and the father and younger son give themselves up.  The youngest son admits he is responsible for the shooting of the American tourist and later of the shooting of a native police officer that was in pursuit of them.  The American tourist eventually receives the medical help that she needs, and the marriage now seems to have been saved.  (There’s nothing like being shot to help mend a marriage.)  Through no help of the American couple, the nanny is now deported to Mexico – despite years of dedication and service.

Everything tenuously fits together in this movie.  But despite the fact that this movie borrows heavily from the same storyline device as was used in the movie Crash, Babel was still filmed more adeptly than that Academy Award winner.  Certainly, throwing all of these stories together in one movie prevents Babel from having complete character development, but the characters are not automations.  I did have at least some empathy for the major characters in this movie.
In some ways, the makers of Babel have failed.  Poor communications and a failure to misunderstand each other’s culture undoubtedly have contributed greatly to the world’s problems, but the makers of Babel tried to trick us into swallowing that lesson whole.  They attempted to do that by messing around with the chronology to fool us into thinking the movie is more complicated than it really was.  A high school English teacher could make his or her class understand in ten minutes what the movie was about by diagramming the four subplots on a blackboard and then tracing how these all come together.  The attempt to hide the simplicity of the movie from the viewer makes one suspect that it lacks substance.  Indeed, throwing four separate storylines into the movie with a running time of two hours and twenty-two minutes does not give us the time to truly know any of these characters.  For example, we don’t learn that Amelia is an illegal immigrant until just the right time when we find she’s being deported from the United States.  We never know why the American couple is having marital difficulties.  We don’t know where the Japanese gentleman spends most of his time, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t spend much time supervising his daughter.  (Most importantly, we can only guess if Chieko’s wandering around naked in the apartment is to show her troubled soul or to bring in a bigger audience.)
But the makers of Babel did something that is unusual for a Hollywood movie.  They address the question of wealth and poverty with honesty.  The wealthy characters in Babel had the economic and political means to resolve their problems.  The poor characters did not.  Hollywood is so in love with glamour and scandal that moviemakers still believe the rich are a special breed, and have a special set of problems.  (“Yes, they have more money.”  The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway.)  Outside of a handful of movies like The Grapes of Wrath or Treasure of Sierra Madre, Hollywood never gives an intelligent treatment to the problems of the poor.  Poor people are either not worthy of being given a complete examination of their lives, or they are romanticized.  Take Titanic, for example, where the rich guy is a pathological killer and the poor guy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a magnificent lover.  At least in Babel we do not have the illusion that the rich and poor are on a level playing field when it comes to justice being handed out.  Here, the poor take a tumble.  If the deaf teenage girl had grown up in the ghetto, she would have been destined to walk the streets instead of receiving any sort of counseling and comfort.  If the nanny had any family with wealthy connections, she would not have been deported.  If the Moroccan family had even a bit more subsistence they would not have had to rely so heavily on their young sons to watch the flocks in this mountainous terrain.  And if the individual shot had been someone from almost any country besides the United States, there would be little chance that it would have become an international incident, and there would not have been a significant effort to rescue her. 
Would I watch this movie again?  Probably not – not unless I’m stuck without a good book to read.  The movie is predictable and three of the four individual subplots did not by themselves contain enough material for me to become enamored with the movie.  The Moroccan family was my main focus of interest, but much of my time was spent watching other meaningless subplots.  The Moroccan father, the two sons, and their circumstances, could have been compelling if given a closer look.  Nevertheless, I am happy that I watched the movie and only hold mild regrets that it wasn’t better.  And judging from what has won the best picture award during the last few years, this is a possible “dark horse” candidate to take the Oscar.  It’s not the best picture of those up for the award (I think The Departed and Letters from Iwo Jima are better – I have not yet seen The Queen).   Still, the Academy Award Committee has made a number of worse choices for movies than Babel in the past.
* I believe that the character’s name is Anwar and is played by Mohamed Athzam.  I challenge the reader to locate a review that actually refers to this individual by any other identity than the “Moroccan goat herder.”  I must have reviewed thirty to forty reviews to refresh my recollection as to his identity, and I couldn’t locate a single one that refers to his occupation in the movie, his character’s name and/or actual name in the same sentence.  (In fact, I only saw two reviews that actually identified the character names and actual identity of the sons.)  There were a number of reviews that identified the entire cast, but you can’t by this information distinguish one of the Moroccan actors from another.  In any case, this individual’s role is almost as important as Brad Pitt’s and he (the actor who played the goat herder) certainly did a great deal more acting than Cate Blanchett.  God forbid we don’t mention Pitt or Blanchett’s name in a review!  Nevertheless, the Moroccan father will probably forever be known as the “goat herder.”
February 20, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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