Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Movie Review: Babel

A gritty flick about the fragility of human life just beyond our comfort zones

Director: Alejandro González Inárritu
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
Script: Guillermo Arriaga

This flick is something like watching specific motorists on an expressway. At first it’s a bizarre thing to do, a strange selection of mostly unknown characters, and a bizarre place to be, until you realize each is heading towards their own private car wreck. It is frightening just how easily lives that may seem so safe and secure, can completely unravel. The lives in Babel have almost nothing in common, except of course the Expressway in this metaphor. In the movie, you’ll see how the characters are related and why.

This is an unconventional flick, just as the title suggests. Yes, it does have a golden thread linking Japan to the desert of Northern Africa, to Mexico and San Diego, but this cohesiveness, while sensible, isn’t essential. Each of the 4 stories are powerful stories on their own, and sewn together for an elaborate Cautionary Tale on how easily the easy lives we know in the West can be torn asunder.

What I enjoyed about Babel were the far flung settings, and the gritty reality. There is something tremendously disconcerting for Westerners to see themselves made so helpless and in fact terrified, to simply be in the sterile and hard environment other people live in every single day. The director places some of his main characters in the desert, where they fuss about wanting a Diet Coke, and argue about the purity of ice cubes clinking around in their cokes when they do arrive. Western values are shown in stark contrast to the absolute destitution that surrounds them, where people scratch a living among rocks and houses made with mud. The locals are about as poor as people can be; they trade in the carcasses of goats, and yet open their homes to complete strangers, wanting nothing in exchange.

It is interesting to see that after the ‘American woman’ – Susan – (played by Cate Blanchett) is shot, the local police race over the mountains in a convoy of police vehicles, while the poor woman practically bleeds to death because there are no ambulances available. Susan’s husband Richard (played by an understated and graying Brad Pitt) is desperate but helpless to get her to safety. Perhaps someone could have conveyed to the overeager police force that instead of hunting possible human perpetrators, instead of beating out confessions from innocent civilians, they might first try to save the life that is at stake. The Mexican maid who says she has worked for 16 years in America, faces a similarly crazy legal conundrum. So this flick stabs a finger at human sensibilities, in particular, at the absurdities behind our laws and punishments, and especially at our lack of humanity and common sense towards our fellow human beings.

In the end, one errant bullet creates a crack in the eggshell of safety that protects human beings from each other, and through that crack the monsters that lie within emerge to wreck what is left of the vulnerable yolk that is meant to connect us to each other. The director could have made this a much more tragic movie than it is. But yes, human weakness is exposed here on a disturbing scale.

The metaphor covers full circle when a prosecuting officer, whose job is to pursue the mere serial number of a weapon and apparently nothing else, encounters a naked, deaf girl in an apartment. He sees her first reflected in the glass of the apartment, and then he sees her more clearly. He is called to respond, but he is frozen; his portfolio prevents him from doing so. The Japanese girl is desperate for warmth and affection, yet the officer remains cold, and locked in his mandate and his uniform, impotent to her silent cry for solace and comfort, but somehow aware of his own impotence, and also his own yearning for the same.

It is a moving image, the young naked female form, hovering in the space high above the city, the same spot where her own mother jumped to her death. The question is put before us: will we reach out to one another in time to save ourselves and those around us?

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