A World Within Ear Shot by Tom Jennings
[film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 8, April 2007]
Babel, directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu
This third collaboration with writer Guillermo Arriaga concludes Iñárritu’s depiction of contemporary collisions of fate, upping the stakes from class divisions in Mexico City (Amores Perros, 2000) and suburban US ruminations on the meaning and value of existence (21 Grams, 2003) to Babel’s worldwide web of violent correlation. Here a Berber peasant family are framed as terrorists when an American tourist is accidentally wounded, derailing her husband’s attempt to salve their unhappiness, while back home their two kids and illegal nanny fall foul of border police after attending a Tijuana wedding. Interspersed with these escalating disasters, a well-off Tokyo deaf-mute juggles frustrated teenage sexuality, grief at her mother’s suicide and the neglectfulness of her father – whose generosity, it transpires, originally set the story in motion. Drawn in by acute cinematography and sympathetic performances, the deft manipulation of narrative fragments and jumbled timelines prompts the viewer to ponder contrasting worldviews and life-chances.
These diverse melodramas across the planet are woven with the pointed McGuffin of power from the barrel of a gun; common threads being desires and conflicts associated with love and family. Then, disparities of wealth and mobility massively influence both the scale of fulfilment that can realistically be sought and the consequences of mistakes and misfortunes. So, when a subsistence lifestyle encounters modern Third World realpolitik, embryonic imaginings of a fuller, safer future are stillborn. Meanwhile, the neo-colonial service economy vampirises its serfs in a callous class apartheid; whereas the relatively affluent are blind to the human costs of what they take for granted. Insulated by consumerism, their self-obsession allows them neither to connect meaningfully with each other nor avoid trampling over the less fortunate upon whom their comfort depends.
However, the miscommunication hinted in the biblical title flows not from faulty translation between cultures or linguistic systems, but the contradictions of underlying social and political subtexts – the conceptual frameworks shaping our understanding and action. Events hinge on the characters’ negotiations of the corresponding institutional discourses which regulate lives and constrain potential, yielding misery for rich and poor alike – the texture of which varies considerably, with outcomes more tragic for those whose interests are marginalised most. Babel may be scarcely able to capture the deep structures of power radiating globally through social fabrics, but such ambition is rare in a mainstream cinema preferring simplistic conspiracies and cartoonish heroics. It’s also much subtler than the fluffy liberal marketing hype suggests – though the latter hoodwinked the critics who, in seeing only pretension, merely confirmed their own.