Hawking Up Hairballs

Sunday, July 15, 2007


I wasn't enthusiatic about the idea of watching Babel. I had skimmed a couple of positive reviews, but I had been skeptical. After all, it starred Brad Pitt, and he's a big-time Hollywood actor. It has been my experience that films starring such actors are disappointments because they so often rely upon the celebrity of those actors to carry them. In the case of Babel I was wrong. The film is a masterpiece.

There are three related stories in the film, but it is not initially clear that they are connected. The first is the story of Pitt's character and his wife in the desert of Morocco. They are there with a group of other tourists on a bus. It is never specified what they are there to see, but that is really beside the point. The second story is about an older woman, an illegal Mexican resident in San Diego, who has worked as a nanny raising two affluent white kids, a boy and girl who are seven or eight years old. The last story takes place in Tokyo. It is about a lonely and alienated deaf mute teenaged girl whose mother committed suicide several months before the story in the movie began. The mother had shot herself and the girl had been the one who discovered her. The action in the film moves back and forth between these three narratives.

In the Biblical story of Babel, people are building a tower that is supposed to take them to God in Heaven. This angers God, who takes this for an act of hubris, and he responds by making them speak in different languages. They are then banished to the four corners of the Earth. Likewise, the three strands of Babel's narrative take place in widely scattered places around the globe, and it could be said that the narrative is driven by the fact that, metaphorically speaking, people don't speak the same language.

The action begins in the Moroccan desert where a goatherd is buying a rifle. He intends to use it to kill the coyotes who are taking his goats. His sons, who are boys of about ten and twelve, bring the rifle with them when they take the goats out to graze. They are unconvinced that the rifle is any good, so they take a pot shot at a distant tour bus that is driving along the road below the hill where they are grazing their goats. Pitt's wife is struck by the bullet, and the rest of this story is about his attempt to get her to a hospital while the Moroccan police seek the perpetrators.

In the second story, the Mexican nanny is taking care of her two charges while their parents are away on a trip. She has been planning to go to her son's wedding for a long time but, at the last minute, her employer calls to tell her that they have been unable find someone to care for the children in her place. They expect her to miss the wedding and take care of the kids. The woman isn't about to do that, so she takes the kids with her to Mexico. This story is about the trip down there, and her attempt to bring the children back. Though it is not apparent at first, it soon becomes clear that the employer is Pitt and that the children is his.

The third tale is set in Tokyo. The deaf mute teenager at the center of it feels isolated from others her age because of her disability. In addition, she is alienated from her businessman father, presumably as a result of her mother's suicide. She decides that the solution to her loneliness is to lose her virginity and she goes to some bizarre lengths to accomplish that, like trying to seduce her dentist while he is looking at her teeth. Failing her attempts, she appears to be on the verge of committing suicide by jumping from the balcony of the high-rise apartment where she lives with her father, but she reconsiders when he arrives home before she goes through with it. This story is connected to the other two by that fact that the girl's father was the one who gave the rifle to the man who sold it to the goatherd.

I found myself thinking, okay, so this is a movie called Babel. What is the act of hubris that has brought these people to this pass? It is the edifice of the global economy that has enabled the well-off from the affluent countries to turn the world into their playground. In Morocco, the other tourists on the bus that carried Pitt and his wife become pissed off because they have to wait around without air conditioning while Pitt tries to come up with a way to get his wife to a hospital. Never mind the fact that the desert dwellers there have probably never experienced air conditioning in their whole lives. In the end, a military helicopter flies out into the desert to transport her to a hospital. This is something the Moroccans could never hope for should they become injured or ill. Not only that but, though Pitt's wife recovers, the goatherd loses one of his small sons when he is shot by police. Even more to the point, the whole thing never would have happened had the Japanese businessman not gone to Morocco on a hunting expedition. He'd been so pleased by his local guide that he'd given him the rifle.

Babel is very much a political movie. The First World plays while the Third World suffers. For example, though the Mexican nanny has worked for Pitt's family for sixteen years, he thinks so little of her that he expects her to miss her son's wedding because he couldn't be bothered to make other arrangements for his children. When she takes them to Mexico, the kids have a big time, and they are well treated by those at the wedding. The problems only arise when she attempts to return to the US. A hardnosed border guard is the catalyst that leads to her travails. The movie is decidedly anti-American but not unfairly. I suspect that it reflects the way a lot of people around the world see the USA today. For example, the reason that Pitt has so much trouble getting his wife to a hospital is because the Moroccan government initially refuses to let a US helicopter into its air space. It has reacted in that manner because the American embassy, upon learning of the shooting, had announced to the world press that it had been a terrorist attack. I found that very believable.

I feeled compelled to say though that this film is so much more than a political movie. It is more the case that the political is the backdrop for human tragedy. To me, that's what makes it such great art. For example, take the shooting. The idea of shooting at a bus is just crazy. The boys who do it had never even seen a rifle before, and they have no idea about what it can really do. They don't come out and say it, but it is apparent that they don't even think of themselves as shooting at people. They're just taking a pot shot at a bus. That way of thinking is very like kids.

There are so many nice little touches in the movie. Near the beginning, Pitt and his wife have been quarreling. They are on the bus. He's reading and she's dozing. She reaches over and takes his hand, but then releases it. Shortly thereafter she's shot. The movie ends when the Japanese businessman joins his daughter on the balcony. She takes his hand and they hug. There's your closure. I love it.

Looking back over this review, I don't really feel like I'm doing the movie justice. I'm sure there's much I've missed and I definitely want to watch it again. It's rare that I feel that way about any film. I can only tell you to see this movie. You'll like it.


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