Sunday, November 12, 2006

Babel (Iñárritu, 2006)

The name Alejandro González Iñárritu is quickly becoming synonymous with the word ‘visceral’. As evidenced by his Amores Perros, 21 Grams, his segment in the film 11’09”01 and especially his most recent work, Babel, Iñárritu is an artist that bypasses our brain and our heart in order to latch a firm hold on our gut. This is not to say that his films lack intelligence or compassion. It simply means that Iñárritu’s top priority is to capture the way we respond to the world instinctually. Perhaps this is why he prefers to work with scripts that bounce around between various storylines. It allows him to build towards a critical moment and then quickly dart away while we are still left with that initial feeling. Michael Haneke, a filmmaker focused primarily on the intellect, would take precisely the opposite approach. He would linger on the critical moment for an extremely lengthy period of time until viewers work past what they feel about the thing they have seen and into what they think about it. There is merit in both approaches.

With Babel, Iñárritu offers us the world as powder keg, a place where a small twitch of the right muscle in the right moment can be enough to send reverberations throughout the world. As one might guess from the title, one of Babel’s major themes is how language and culture often provide barriers to communication. Spread out around the globe, our communities give us a sense of comfort and identity; however, they can also become an obstacle when cultures collide, leading to communication in the international ‘language’ of violence. In selecting his moments of culture shock, Iñárritu does not merely stop with the obvious, such as two American children visiting a Mexican wedding. He also offers us cultural divides that we may not have considered, such as a group of young, deaf-mute friends living in urban Japan. The complexity of Babel’s layering is perhaps best on display in a scene where a troubled girl from this group attends a dance club. Without dialogue, Iñárritu offers us Japanese culture meeting deaf culture meeting youth culture meeting rave culture and allows us to consider how the way we identify ourselves impacts the choices we make.

Thankfully, Iñárritu’s writer, Guillermo Arriaga, does not condescend to the viewer with overwrought speeches about how we crash into each other in order to feel something. On the contrary, he sets his situations in motion, allows them to follow a logical course and then lingers gently over the details that may prove revelatory. What does it mean, for example, that a parental figure offers the same slap to a boy that has committed a horrifying act of violence and a girl that has allowed others to spy upon her naked body? During a high-speed chase, how does the racial identity of the passengers in the back seat affect the way that we experience the scene? Does it make a difference? From start to finish, Babel is tense and gripping, as well as being impeccably performed. Initially, we are skeptical about the way that Iñárritu and Arriaga will tie together their story lines; however, when the final piece in the puzzle comes, it takes the film to new heights rather than exposing any lack of credibility. Don’t avoid the film thinking that you have seen this kind of ‘everybody’s connected’ storyline before. Babel is something special.



Post a Comment

<< Home