Four vignettes, all of considerable emotional struggle, strung together by the idea that one single event can have worldwide repercussions.
We’ve seen this before – Magnolia (1999) and Crash (2005) – so Babel’s plunge into the butterfly effect might seem more of a gimmick than anything for serious consideration, but we return to these movies of interconnected storylines because we want to solve the puzzle; how does it all fit together? Just as we wish to stand afar from our own lives and see the big picture, Babel offers an opportunity to look at human connectedness from above.
In other words “the point of it all”, or the lack there of, but whether or not the film looks at the grand scheme of things with true resonating power is debatable.
Two Moroccan brothers horseplay with a hunting rifle. The gun is intended for protecting the sheep, but instead, in a moment of competition, the boys turn the gun upon a tour bus climbing up the mountainside. The gun fires and a moment later the bus slows to a halt.
We know, and they know, something is wrong.
The scene plays from their perspective, a good choice (but I suppose also an obvious one, as this is more or less the same story told four different ways). The distance between the camera and the bus creates visual tension that advances the story. We know that story number two is on the bus (in fact we’ve already met them) but we are unable to see what has happened due to distance. In this sense I am not necessarily suggesting distance as a use of suspense (for if we are smart we already know what happens in this event) but as a limiter in the shepherd boys’ knowledge, placing the viewer as omniscient, for here comes more of story line number two.
Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are two Americans on vacation. Susan faces deep depression and guilt after the death of one of her children. I found two scenes of subtle interaction between Richard and Susan particularly riveting, due in part to Pitt and Blanchet’s magnificent acting. In one Susan complains about the drinking water, telling Richard not to drink it. Then later on the tour bus we see a wordless barrier between the husband and wife, an inability to communicate, which is the finality of the film – how ineffective we are as human beings in communicating inner emotion and in turn understanding truth.
Susan is hit with the stray bullet. Is this the event that creates ripples around the globe?
In San Diego Richard and Susan’s Spanish house keeper Amelia watches over the two children. Unable to find a day sitter for the kids Amelia totes them along to her son’s wedding across the border. Unfortunate misunderstanding turns into catastrophe for Amelia and the children on the return back into America. Here, we see the films greatest example of miscommunication problems.
The fourth and most obscure story is that of a deaf Japanese girl named Chieko. The recent suicide of her mother has sent her into a self destructive sexual rebellion and she throws herself upon all men present in her life, including her dentist. While the three previous story lines have had much physical conflict, this last section is much more internally driven, more confusing, more disturbing, but also more thought provoking – I felt it had the most heart.
The film has subtitles. There are after all, five languages throughout: Moroccan, English, Spanish, Japanese, and sign language. I was speaking to my friend Andrea about the film and mentioned a plot point of the mother’s suicide. She did not know what I was referring to.
I thought about this more. How interesting this idea was: sure, details would be lost without the subtitles (you might say the detail Andrea lost seems like a pretty big deal), but this story primarily resolves around physical conflict and although experimental it would demonstrate that the language of cinema is universal. We are lost amidst the spoken language, but a visual language allows us to understand. All coming from a movie about the impossibility of communication.
BABEL is quite a fitting title indeed.
A final consensus – The interconnectedness idea has been done before, but never exactly in this route approaching communication and language as it does, and thus, I believe worthy of some consideration and thought, or at least just as much consideration as Crash received. Perhaps Babel’s length of 2 hours and 22 minutes in comparison to Crash’s 1 hour and 52 minutes makes it slightly more tedious. Crash also deals with more palpable and pressing issues such as racism - instead of Babel’s obscurity of language.
3 1/2 stars out of 5