At the center of BABEL is a subject at the core of 21st century life: communication. The film tackles the unsettling contradiction that although we now live in a world where the latest, greatest technologies make it shockingly easy to communicate on a global level, people still feel largely isolated and apart from one another.
Thus, it was that the title of BABEL came to González Iñárritu from the foundational tale in The Bible’s Book of Genesis in which a cohesive humanity, yearning for something higher, attempts to build a gigantic tower that will reach all the way through the cosmos to heaven. When the humans start to get close, God becomes angry at their hubris and decides to foil their plans. He does so by giving each and every person in Babel an entirely unique language – immediately halting their ability to talk to one another. Now unable to connect, the humans give up their tower and disperse themselves across the globe.
For eons, the story of the Tower of Babel has been a way of explaining how humanity was first divided into so many different cultures and languages – but to González Iñárritu, it is also a poignant reminder of how humans have remained painfully divided by superficial barriers and miscomprehensions.
“I wanted to try to capture the whole idea of human communication – its ambitions, its beauty and its problems with one word,” he says of choosing BABEL to name his film. “I considered so many different titles, but when I thought of the story of Genesis, it made so much sense as a metaphor for the film. Each of us has our own different language, but I believe we all share the same spiritual spine.”
In a departure from his two previous films, both shot in countries, settings and shooting conditions somehow manageable and familiar to the director, BABEL meant for González Iñárritu not only the deep involvement in a more complicated, emotional and intellectual journey, but a means of exploring other cultures and ways of seeing the world through the eyes of a far more complex film production. As is usually the case, the clashing of so many cultural points of view in both the ideological and in the physical ended up transforming not only his personal perspective on things but the
creative process itself.
One of the director’s main objectives was to avoid using an outsiders point of view in telling the stories of characters born and raised in the cities portrayed. In order to achieve that he followed what he calls an “observe” and “absorb” process. Aside from carefully watching the everyday habits of the locals, he chose to work with foreign non-professional actors who provided him with insight on cultural subtleties. In the ultimate challenge of telling the story from the characters and not the director’s frame of mind, he let his first-time actors develop their own reactions to situations that might have a different meaning in another country. Many of them had never seen a film camera before.
The idea of making a film about the cacophony of human voices first came to Gonzalez Iñárritu before he even began shooting 21 Grams. Acclaimed writer Guillermo Arriaga joined forces again to write the screenplay and conclude the triology which they began with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. “Arriaga’s talent is extraordinary. He has been an important collaborator. His writing is profound and powerful and technically, he understands and manages his tools impeccably,” says the director.
The first of the four narratives follows a troubled American couple who find themselves fighting for their lives in the middle of a tragic incident while vacationing in the Muslim country of Morocco, where the local language and culture are a constant riddle. The paradox implied in the relationship between the characters portrayed by Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt is an example of a more intimate definition of miscommunication. “From the outside, they look like a couple who gets lost in the desert, when in reality, they are a lost couple who find one another in their loneliness,” says the director. “To me, Richard and Susan’s story, more than being about an American couple coming together to get hopelessly lost in the desert, is about two people who have lost respect for one another and who come to the desert to find each other. The key to understanding who they are lies in the fact that they lose a child, and the subsequent grief and guilt that arises out of that misfotune.” Says the director.
Entwined with this shattering marital drama is the story of the two Morrocan children who accidentally endanger many lives and set off a chain of global events they could never have imagined. Theirs is a a more common mode of miscommunication, one of sibling rivalry that culminates in an inoccent choice gone wrong. For me “the story of the Moroccan children meant more a tragedy about the moral breakdown of a highly spiritual Muslim family than a story about a boy being chased by the police. It is equally or more important to the father of the children that Yussef is peeping on his sister while she is undressing than the fact that they had shot at a bus. When values crumble nothing makes sense anymore; when a link is broken, it’s not the link that is rotten, but the chain itself.”
Another tale revolves around a Mexican nanny working amidst the wealth of California, who makes the fateful decision to bring two American children illegally across the border. Her story is a fable that sums up the situation of thousands of people who try to cross the U.S. border – a situation that emcompasses the frustrations of so many immigrants living abroad, their inability to fully communicate their desire for a better life. The final story focuses on a widowed father trying to emotionally connect with his deaf daughter in the middle of the intensely urban setting of Tokyo. This tale of a teenager who falls into sexual extremes as a way to fulfill her yearning for affection, expresses another side of language – the physical. Says Gonzalez Iñárritu “comminication becomes not was is mearly said or not said, but also what is physically evolked. In Chieko’s case, the Japanese adolescent, besides lacking a mother, suffers from the lack of words. When to touch or to be touched by words is not an option, then body becomes an instrument, as a weapon or an invitation. ” says the director.
Each of the stories involves parents and children, tragedy and transcendence, the personal and global – and each involves an overarching yearning for communication.
Ultimately, Gonzalez Iñárritu contends that the universal, visual language of film is one way that artists can break through the borders and miscommunications he explores in BABEL. “I believe that languages can be like a mirage that misleads and confuses us. They can make us more suspicious of people we see as others. But I also think there’s no tool more perfect for breaking away from the language barrier than powerful images and music. Images don’t need translation because they trigger universal human emotions. Film is as close to Esperanto as it gets,” he summarizes.