directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Paramount Vantage

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel is a meditation on the barriers to communication in a world divided by class, culture, and language. Although his vision is dark, Iñárritu never surrenders to cynicism. His Babel, unlike the Bible story, holds out the promise of a universal language of the human heart.

In one striking scene, Chieko—a deaf Japanese teenage girl played brilliantly by Rinko Kikuchi—stands naked on the balcony of her high-rise apartment in the darkness of the Tokyo night. Will she jump? The image is one of those undreamt-of archetypes that film, when it becomes art, has the power to create.

The scene is only one segment of Chieko’s story, which shares the movie with three other fragmented, non-chronological narratives (two set in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, one in San Diego and Mexico). Indeed, Babel is the third in a trilogy of extraordinary films by Iñárritu, all of them made in the same style, with intersecting story segments that we must assemble into narratives.

Each of Babel’s stories gives us a glimpse of intriguing characters caught in webs of circumstance that test their humanity. Evil comes into their lives not from human nature with all its passions but from the authorities who would control them: the Moroccan police, the U.S. State Department, American border guards. But Chieko’s story is the most brilliantly original, and Iñárritu surprises us in it with a police detective’s kindness and understanding.

When we first see Chieko, she is playing volleyball. She explodes with rage and obscene gestures at a referee’s bad call, and her team is disqualified. Her teammates, who share her handicap, find Chieko’s rage inexplicable, and in sign language (translated in subtitles) they jokingly attribute it to her sexual frustration. Something is seething in Chieko, and it boils over in the course of the day. At a crowded restaurant she takes off her panties to expose herself to the boys who flirted with her and then turned away after realizing she could not speak. During an appointment with her dentist she grabs his hand and pushes it between her legs. The dentist, horrified, throws her out of his office. A frantic evening of drugs, alcohol, and pursuit of a young man in a club ends in frustration. He chooses someone else. She makes her lonely way back to her apartment building through a jungle of neon signs. Once there she arranges to have a police detective summoned to her apartment on a false pretext, and then presents herself totally naked before him.

The image of Chieko’s nakedness is haunting. Yes, it is the anonymous nude body as object for the prurient male gaze. But it is also Chieko herself, revealed in all her desperate vulnerability. The detective seems to understand both meanings, and he responds with fatherly compassion: he covers her and tries to comfort her.

Later Chieko’s father returns to find his naked daughter on the balcony. Is he afraid? He moves slowly toward her, reaches his hand out, and she hesitantly takes it: their eyes meet in a moment of unspoken human connection. The camera retreats into the darkness of the Tokyo night; hope is still possible. Iñárritu has shown us the wordless language of the heart.

In the Chieko segments, like the others in the movie, the psychological motivations of the characters are open-ended and obscure, and much is left to the viewer’s imagination. Some will conclude that Chieko has simply reached the age when sexual impulse and frustration is overwhelming. Their Chieko is the teenager of the 21st century, for whom virginity is an embarrassment. Others will have understood that Chieko feels that she is treated like a monster by the boys her own age. So defiantly showing her “hairy monster” is more complicated than being an adolescent girl gone wild.

And there is more to consider. In her late-night meeting with the police inspector, during which she communicates by writing notes, she informs him that her mother had committed suicide by jumping off the high-rise balcony—and she points to the spot where her father would later find her standing. Is she describing her own suicide plan? In yet another segment the inspector, as he leaves the building, meets the returning father in the lobby. The father reports that his wife shot herself in the head and that Chieko was the first person to find her. This story might lead one to think that a grieving Chieko is struggling with much more than the rush of adolescent sexual desire. Her rage might be a symptom of her depression and all of her strange behavior that day might be better understood as desperate attempts to ward off the deadening mindset of helplessness and hopelessness that leads to suicide. A child psychiatrist might go even further in these imaginings, wondering whether there is something more ominous and perverse in this relationship between father and daughter that was driving Chieko to behave in these sexually aggressive ways, her behavior being not unlike that of a young child who has been sexually abused. And what connecting myth can be spun that might tie all these family dynamics to the mother’s unexplained suicide?

In many films there are moments when the viewer will feel the need to fill in a character’s motivations. But Babel, and particularly the Chieko segments, are like a Rorschach test that forces the audience to project its own unconscious into the gaps to create narrative sense. Some of this is intentional on Iñárritu’s part. For example, we see the police detective stopping for a drink after he has left the apartment. Clearly his encounter with this naked and vulnerable young woman has moved him deeply, and, as he orders his second drink, he remembers that she has given him a note that she asked him not to read until he left. When he takes out the note and reads it, he smiles enigmatically, but we are never told what it says. Iñárritu actually instructed Kikuchi to write anything she thought was appropriate. But whatever the message was—love, apology, please try again—we will never know. Iñárritu wants us to go on imagining in an active engagement with the film and its characters.

The tenuous text of Babel is held together by the technical virtuosity of its editing and cinematography. Iñárritu's cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, experimented with different film stocks and different techniques to capture the different locations: the neon lights of nighttime Tokyo in 35 millimeter, the drab mountain wasteland of Morocco in 16 millimeter. Prieto’s goal was to give “each story a particular look, without it being too obvious,” and he succeeds. The editing that takes us back and forth between the segments is inspired; it makes art of the disjunctions. For cineastes, it is worth seeing Babel a second time just to appreciate the cinematography and editing.

Babel earned Iñárritu the award for best director at Cannes and the Golden Globe for best picture. But at the Academy Awards, despite seven nominations, only the musical score took the Oscar. Babel is one of those films that people either love or hate, and those who hate it have scathing criticism for Iñárritu. At the core of their complaints is the film’s nonlinear narrative style and the fact that Iñárritu has now used it in all three of his films. Nicknamed El Negro, Iñárritu began his career as a disc jockey on Mexican radio, worked his way into directing TV commercials, and then teamed up with Prieto and the writer Guillermo Arriaga to make a film of ten short stories about social class and subcultures of Mexico City. The ten short stories were winnowed down to three, and then in the style of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (there is in fact an homage to Tarantino’s cult classic in the opening of the film) they interwove the stories, connecting them through the device of a traffic accident. Made on a shoestring budget in Mexico City, Amores Perros was an enormous critical and commercial success that earned Iñárritu an international reputation overnight.

Although it owed its “collage method” to Tarantino, the emotional impact of Amores Perros is quite different. Tarantino’s collage is made up of segments inspired by genre films of the past. The effect is an unlikely mixture of surreal violence and cinema nostalgia in which his actors become cartoon characters. But if Tarantino is mannerism, Iñárritu is gut-wrenching realism. Iñárritu’s collage is put together from pieces of gritty reality, and his actors have the chance of a lifetime to plumb the depths of their characters. Amores Perros, anchored in Mexico City, has a compelling authenticity and brought Hollywood stars to Iñárritu’s door. They came hat in hand, willing to take far less money than they could command from other filmmakers.

His next film, 21 Grams, wound up featuring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, both giving superb performances. The film was to be set in Mexico City, but Iñárritu moved it to middle America, a choice that some critics felt resulted in a loss of authenticity. Iñárritu stayed with his formula: interwoven stories told in a nonlinear narrative and held together by a tragic event. And so Babel was a tempting target for those who had become fed up with Iñárritu and derided his style as a pretentious device to foist soap operas on credulous art-house audiences. Time Out London summoned up the cruelest gibe: “If misery is your pornography, Babel is your holy grail.”

Stendhal said about literature, “The reader is the violin whose soul plays on the bow of my novel.” Everyone sees a different film. And in my viewing of Babel there are scenes and characters I shall never forget, and, in the long passages of misery, moments of redemptive human connection.