Communicating with the Heart: On "Babel"

Most of the observations below, if not all, belong to Paul Drozdowski. Many thanks, as always. Spoilers abound below.

I disagree thoroughly with Pajiba on this film – the argument there is that the weakest of the three locations where narrative unravels (Morocco, Mexico/US border, Japan) is Japan. The passage in full that I think misses the point is this one:

Unfortunately, González Iñárritu stumbles in the third part of the story, which centers on a deaf Japanese teen and her rocky relationship with her father. It’s not that the Tokyo-set plotline is farfetched; if anything, González Iñárritu finds an interesting way to tie Richard and Susan into the life of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), who, in her desperation to be loved, had a chance to become the film’s most empathetic character. But instead, Chieko’s wanderings around town become bogged down in melodrama, and her stilted relationship with her distant father relies on just one too many clichés. González Iñárritu throws everything from a recent familial death to clunky, curious displays of sexuality that would be better suited to a student film. By the arc’s conclusion, Chieko has become just another boring archetype in a film that should have demanded more of her.

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and Carlson’s opinion is very well-informed. But I don’t know how clichéd that part of the story is; I found the most compelling part of the story, because the teenager is where all the threads unite thematically, not the couple.

Instead of looking at geography, let’s look at language in the movie: nearly every time people speak the same language to each other, disaster ensues. Brad Pitt is about to be lied to by two Moroccans about the state of his bullet-pierced wife; if the lie had continued, there would be no greater fraternity at the end of the movie, when he offers cash for all that one of the attempted whitewashers of the truth did for him, and is refused by a man he ended up praying together silently with. Similarly, it is the Moroccan police, speaking the same language to each other, that are a bunch of brutish thugs, as are the US Border Patrol to some degree in this movie. Take note also of how Moroccan and Japanese kids speaking the exact same language for the exact same purposes can do some of the stupidest, cruelest things known to man, and how little lies like “I’m not drunk” in Mexico, uttered clearly and distinctly during a wedding, can turn lives upside down.

God didn’t curse us by giving us multiple languages. He forced us to talk to each other, to make the effort. That’s the point of the movie. When we don’t bother to make that extra effort, because we take the fact we can talk to each other easily for granted, we cast doubt on the value of each other.

You can see that point more clearly if you don’t divide the movie in terms of location, but in terms of families relating to each other. If you make that move, you get 1) the Moroccan family with the two kids that don’t know how to use a rifle responsibly 2) Brad Pitt and his wife, far away from their kids for God-knows-how-long 3) the Mexican nanny who takes care of Pitt’s kids and wants to go to her son’s wedding in Mexico and 4) the Japanese teenager and the father.

Now out of the four families, three flirt with and engage disaster. The Moroccan dad loses both his children because he trusted them with the rifle. The corporal punishment and teaching of “here’s how you should behave” is all after the fact; the younger kid that is a good shot, whose hormones are developing, only knows that growing up isn’t a physical phenomenon as much as an acceptance of responsibility until his brother has been killed. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, too distraught over one child dying, aren’t really there for their other kids. The Mexican nanny, Amelia, is there for their kids and her own, and even after a disaster causing her to lose nearly everything, has someone there for her. But her case is exceptional, because to be loving and loved back is rare, and she is loved by all in her charge.

The Japanese father is the one with the toughest time. All the love in the world isn’t getting through to his daughter, who is blessed and cursed with deafness: she’s immune to the babble that is assumed to create confusion in other scenes. One has to be direct with her; the trouble is, no one cares to be direct, no one cares to truly communicate, except the father. The wanting of love results in a self alienating oneself from the love that is being given, even without the problem of confused communication!

It is the inner conflicts which need to be addressed more than the external ones: if we hope, if we care, we can get through a lot. But if we don’t, we’ll just hurt others until kingdom come. And so silence isn’t an easy solution: it just points more directly to what needs to be done. Every time the girl tries something stupid with adults, they keep her away, and her father is there for her as much as he can be.

The difference between him and the nanny might be circumstantial, but I think it is thematic, really. The movie has a moral: the only way confusion in communication can be transcended is vigilance, and that means being there, always. It’s a superhuman task, and it requires society, it requires the building of something greater, and therefore the ironic legacy of babble is Babel – our final shot in the movie is a skyscraper, a heaven oriented reaching that is hopeful.