06 January 2007

Babel: what's the connection?

In the beginning, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film ‘Babel’ is disconnected and confusing. There are four stories: two in Morocco, one crisscrossing the US-Mexico border, one in Japan. Each story reveals characters living in their own self-contained world; cocooned, isolated lives which are suddenly thrown open to the world and the film-viewer by accident. Slowly, the walls that separate the characters and their stories from the outside world collapse, and the stories begin to converge.

It all starts with a rifle shot. Two Moroccan boys, while playing with their goatherd father’s rifle on a mountain top (the rifle was bought to kill jackals which preyed on the goats), shoots at a passing tourist bus and accidentally hits an American woman passenger. This sets off an international incident with the media blowing up the story as an act of terrorism, while the critically-injured passenger’s husband tends to his wife by taking refuge in a Moroccan village.

The American couple in the middle of this controversy in Morocco, i.e. the injured passenger and her husband, has a story of their own. They are on a holiday to reconnect with themselves, to put their marriage back on track, after the recent death of their baby. But things don’t go so well for them. They’ve left their two older children (a girl and a boy) back home in San Diego with their Mexican nanny, and are concerned.

The Mexican nanny has plans of going to her son’s wedding in Mexico. She is trusted by her employers, but when she learns that her employers are unable to return home on time (because of the shooting accident in Morocco), and failing to make alternative arrangements to look after the two children, she decides to take the children with her to her son’s wedding in Mexico. All goes well till she is about to cross the border back into the United States in her drunken nephew’s car. She is stopped at the border check-post and when her drunken nephew makes a run for it in the car, her world falls apart.

In Japan, a deaf-mute teenage girl is fighting against the whole world to be accepted as normal. She has lost her mother recently (suicide) and feels her father is not caring enough. Feeling affronted and unloved, she mixes up her emotions – anger with her coming-of-age sexual desires – and indulges in brazen acts of promiscuity. The girl’s isolation – the barrier between her inner ‘silent’ world and the world outside – is beautifully portrayed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Even though this fourth story in Japan has very little connection with the other three (won’t tell you what the connection is; see the film and find out), and therefore, the main film, it is the one I loved the most. It’s in this story that Alejandro González Iñárritu magically, and sharply, brings out the pain of being isolated, of being disconnected with the world.

Naturally, communication, or the lack of it, is central to ‘Babel’. Apart from language being a barrier, particularly when people of two countries or cultures interact, all the characters in the stories seem to have problems expressing themselves, and being misunderstood, adding to their disconnectedness and isolation from the world. But, there’s more. Right from the first rifle shot, there’s a sense of destiny taking control of the lives of the characters in the stories… and helplessness setting in.

In ‘Babel, all four stories converge slowly over two days, and over two hours for the film-viewer, making watching the film rather laborious. Moreover, with sudden cuts between the stories, I felt annoyed. The moment I settled into a plot, González Iñárritu transported me to another one, leaving me hanging. Perhaps, González Iñárritu adopted this technique to string together the fragmented stories and bring about their interconnectedness; but I’m only guessing.

There is one thing, however, that González Iñárritu succeeds in communicating through ‘Babel’. That, human isolation and interconnectedness are really two sides of the same coin called life. Therein lies their connection. ‘Babel’ is worth watching, if only for this realisation.

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