29 November 2006


If you haven’t seen the film, I’m about to talk in tongues. This won’t make any sense; it’s not intended to review; spoilers throughout.

After watching Babel, I wondered if Inarritu intended his audience to question why we all bought a ticket. Advertisements suggest that it’s a film starring three internationally well-known actors, when nothing could be further from the truth: children are the stars, with an ensemble cast that include some famous actors who deliver convincingly. But who’d have gone if it was billed as a film about two Moroccan boys living in poverty, two American kids living a sheltered life under the care of an illegal Mexican housekeeper, and an adolescent Japanese girl who is a deaf mute?

The film reflects how human lives in developed countries are valued differently to the lives of those in undeveloped countries, that is certainly deliberate. Was a point also being made about the value of celebrity, in order to reflect this?

At a guess, most of the audience was in a similar position to my own, identifying with the tourist everyman, trapped in a nightmare. Approaching the end of their ordeal, a helicopter powers into view, with everyone in the cinema breathing a sigh of relief for the artificial skin inhabited, knowing that the day has been saved… then you look back at a village full of men, women and children living in real poverty, knowing that they are simply unfortunate enough to have been born in a country where an individual citizen is not symbolic of the nation’s sovereignty. There are no embassies prepared to do whatever it takes to save one of them, dammit... when it should all go horribly wrong. By the end of the film, you realise that however the characters suffer equally, its the poor Moroccans on the mountain and the illegal Mexican immigrant who are to be left up to their necks in shit.

That wasn’t the main thrust of the film; emotional punches were packed elsewhere. It looked at the joys and terrors of childhood. It was credible to watch privileged kids making to with less comfort; it was delighting to watch those kids learn how to have simple fun, chasing chickens around the coup…until the moment when they realised that they were catching chooks to have their necks wrung, and they were going to eat them at dinner.

Babel has some pretty major flaws- surprised by how willing I am to overlook them. (Eg. how all of the investigating authorities involved jump to the conclusion ‘terrorism’ was hard to swallow, whatever about how quickly the media did) My strongest objection of all has to be the contrived linking of the three disparate stories. We can suspend disbelief to imagine a tourist hit by a random bullet, but what are the chances of her children getting dragged across the border by an illegal immigrant to be abandoned in a desert while she's bleeding to death? Completely unnecessary for the film to work, in any event.

His technique of allowing parallels and comparisons between different slices of ordinary life, as opposed to extraordinary character or dialogue, to make the audience think, is effective. There wasn’t a need to introduce such extraordinary coincidences, or even such extraordinary circumstances. This cinematic style might improve by returning to its literary roots, books like Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’- like any other art, cinema can be as effective, if not more effective, when it avoids melodrama.

It was the story involving the Japanese girl that knocked me out, a teenager unable to communicate on the same wavelength as those around her.

Sex was a means to that end, at first: then, it became her end. It was excruciating to watch. I can’t imagine another life that is more far-removed from my own on the surface, yet similar in other ways. To what extent do gay men have sex in order to connect? Is it not often affection, interest, human warmth and a sense of acceptance that you are after, when you end up settling for just another one night stand?

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