We are on the edge of the Moroccan desert. Bleak, low mountains, vast sky. A flight of birds fills the screen, and then is gone. Two boys prepare to take a herd of goats to find what food they can on the hillside, and I think: let’s stay here – although I know we won’t. We don’t. Before long we are in San Diego, California, where a middle-aged Mexican nanny is putting two American children to bed; then in a glittering Japanese city, where a group of deaf-mute girls is ferociously playing volleyball in the school gym.
What’s wrong with San Diego and Japan, and how did I know we weren’t going to stay in Morocco? The answer to both questions is in the credits. Babel, the film we are watching, is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga. These two gave us Amores Perros and 21 Grams, and they can’t seem to get out of the habit of the multiple plot. Once upon a time only Quentin Tarantino was interested in this kind of thing, but then there was Crash, and currently it can seem as if there are only two kinds of movie on offer: movies about penguins and movies with tricky storylines. The penguins are the sign of sentiment and the tricky stories are the sign of art.
The multiple plot method works very well in Amores Perros and Crash, although for rather different reasons. It’s about the ripples of accident in the first case, causality and chance; about undeniable connection in the second case, proof that no man is an island, even in Los Angeles. 21 Grams also brought different sets of people together through an accident, but managed somehow to be slow and violent at the same time, an intelligent film failing to focus, and looking gimmicky as a result. Apart from a couple of bloody moments, the characters did little except brood on their bad lives, although you did sometimes wonder whether this was just the actors getting lost in the script.
There is no doubt that Babel is diligently following a recipe, and by the middle of the movie the rhythm of switching among stories has become so regular it almost creates a form of stasis – the way metronomic cross-cutting or long sequences of medium shots can make you feel a film has gone dead. But then the director pulls off a visual and aural tour de force, an amazing scene in a Japanese nightclub, the rhythm breaks up, and the movie finds its real energies.
The first part is all about accident and anxiety, impatience, casualty. The two boys out with the goats have been given a rifle to shoot coyotes with. They try it out on rocks and cans, and then, interested in the idea that the gun is supposed to hit targets at great distances, take a couple of pot shots at the scarce traffic on the road beneath them. Nothing happens, the rifle is not so great. Wait a minute. That tour bus is stopping. The boys get scared. We pick up another story now, an American couple on holiday, a grizzled Brad Pitt and a whining Cate Blanchett. He’s in trouble for having run away from the marriage, she’s either ill or wanting to be ill. They finish their Moroccan meal with the other tourists and get back on the bus. Then there’s a sudden cracking noise. Cate Blanchett has been shot through the window.
Meanwhile in San Diego the children are in bed, and the nanny, Amelia, brilliantly, warmly played by Adriana Barraza, is getting ready to cross over into Mexico the next day for her son’s wedding. Her nephew Santiago, played by Gael García Bernal, like Barraza a veteran of Amores Perros, is going to pick her up and drive her there. The snag is that the person who was going to stay with the children doesn’t make it, and Amelia can’t find anyone else to stand in for her. She decides to take the children to the wedding. And in Japan Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), one of the volleyball-playing girls, is feeling sulky and rejected, and hopes to cheer herself up with a night on the town and perhaps lose her virginity. So we’re all set. Boys in trouble, wounded woman stranded in a Moroccan village miles from any hospital, American children kidnapped with the best of intentions, and a Japanese teenager popping pills and drinking whisky, ready for a fall.
This is where the nightclub scene occurs. It looks conventional at first: crowds, noise, faces, gaudy colours. Then the colours fade a little, the images become almost abstract. Chieko is suddenly not having a good time, not laughing, not with the boy she thought was hers. She is all alone in this hurly-burly, and we see her solitary, angry face as if it were the only real thing in the world of the movie. Then, three times in a row, the soundtrack cuts out and comes back, so that we suddenly experience Chieko’s world as she does and just as suddenly leave it, and we try to get our heads around the idea of being deaf in a disco. She’s not alone because she’s deaf; but our momentary seeming deafness is a model of solitude, hers and many other kinds.
That of Amelia, for example, who makes it to the wedding, but runs into trouble returning to the United States, because Santiago panics over the delays of the border patrol and takes off into the desert. He leaves Amelia and the children there. She loses the children when she tries to find help, and is finally picked up as an illegal immigrant and deported. It’s perhaps not the most tragic thing to have to go home after 16 years of life in another place, even if you have known those two children since they were born – it’s certainly better than dying in the desert or having the children die there. But Amelia’s distraught face, like Chieko’s angry mask, tells us the person’s whole story: this is what is happening to her and to no one else; we can’t know what it means to learn that what used to be her life is gone. And even if we could know it wouldn’t help her.
Alongside these two stories, Cate Blanchett’s being operated on by a veterinary surgeon and finally helicoptered to Casablanca, and even the Moroccan boys and their father getting caught up in a shoot-out with the police, seem more standard movie fare. Chieko gets more and more desperate in her attempts to make herself interesting and attractive, and we are afraid she will commit suicide, as her mother did. Amelia can’t believe she has entered a zone where her old, comfortable, motherly confidence won’t work. Like Arriaga’s and González Iñárritu’s earlier movies, Babel is full of negative suspense: we are not waiting for something to happen, we just hope (hopelessly) that nothing will. Or: there are so many terrible possibilities, we don’t care which of them doesn’t come off. But there is something new here, a longer, slower development of story, where each life gets it due, and doesn’t have to be compared to another life to become interesting.
This mood is very well brought out by the tricky timeline itself – an unexpected benefit of the combination of a repeated recipe and real imaginative talent. Early in the movie there is a telephone call from the father of the children Amelia is looking after. He talks to her about the plan for relieving her so that she can go to the wedding; he talks to Mike, the older of the two children. Right at the end of the movie we see and hear the phone call from the father’s end, and we realise that after all we and the characters have been through, after the shooting and dying in Morocco, the despair in Japan and the horrible end to the wedding adventure in Mexico, these have not been simultaneous stories, and that one of them, at least, hasn’t started yet. The writer’s and director’s continuing interest in accident has turned into something else, or perhaps was always tending towards something else: not worlds of sheer harm and disaster, but the sense that we are always about to step into an aftermath we can’t imagine.
There are many languages at work in the film: Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, English, French, sign language, music, facial expressions, tears. But the point of the title is not the confusion of tongues, the suggestion that we can’t communicate with each other because we lack a single language, the one we had before God got nervous about human aspirations and said to himself: ‘Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ The point is rather different, an amplification of the dilemma. We manage to understand each other pretty well, in spite of our differences of idiom and culture – even if most of the authorities in the movie refuse to believe that the shooting in Morocco is anything but the work of terrorists, even if the US border guards make it their business to bully Mexicans. The amplified situation is delicately pictured at the end of the film when a young policeman opens a note Chieko has written to him, indicating that he is not to read it in her presence. We glimpse the text, but can’t read it because we don’t see it for long enough or from the right angle – and a lot of us can’t read Japanese anyway. Is it a suicide note? The policeman’s sad but calm expression as he reads suggests not, but then what did it say? What was so important to Chieko, and did the policeman understand? We can imagine he did, since he speaks the language she writes, but then where are we? The stories of Babel are not about the limits of language but about the limits of understanding.