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Babel: A Film About Responsibility

Crime Films: A Monthly Column
By Nicole Rafter

Babel, directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga, is a movie about responsibility, whether it is criminal, civil, or entirely personal. Like this writer-director team’s previous two films, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Babel is not solely or even directly a crime film; but that’s not surprising since traditional types of crime films, as I show in Shots in the Mirror, are disintegrating, fusing with other forms and morphing into new hybrids. Other traditional genres are undergoing the same sorts of change, while entirely new types of movies are emerging, some of them so novel that they are still difficult to name. One of these is Babel.

Babel cycles through events in three locations: Morocco, Tokyo, and the Mexican/California border. In each, we find a father and children: in Morocco, an impoverished goatherd with two sons (one about eleven, the other maybe thirteen), and an adolescent daughter; in Tokyo, a wealthy businessman whose wife has committed suicide and who lives with his only child, a sexually hungry, deaf-mute, fourteen-year-old daughter; and near the Mexican border, a well-to-do American father with two small children. At the time the film takes places, the American father, Robert, is actually a father-in- absentia, globetrotting in Morocco with his very reluctant wife (she wants to get back to the children in San Diego).

In each case, the father abdicates responsibility in a way that sets off the events in question: the Moroccan father thoughtlessly gives a hunting rifle to his boys, encouraging them to shoot the jackals who prey on his goats; the Japanese father fails to give his daughter the love and support she desperately needs (indeed, he can hardly come up with a smile); and the American father has left the children alone with a Mexican nanny. The latter form of abdication is not in itself irresponsible, for Amelia is clearly a warm and self-sacrificing caregiver. Rather, Robert (Brad Pitt) makes his mistake when he phones Amelia (Adrianna Barraza) to announce that she must stay with his children the next day, instead of having a day off, because he and his wife cannot get back in time. (How he could possibly have hoped to get back to San Diego from a remote region of Morocco in one day is a mystery that the film does not attempt to clarify.)

Amelia explains that she needs to go to Mexico the next day for the wedding of her son. However, Robert–assuming that her duty lies in caring for his offspring, not her own–says no, thus setting of the chain of events that leads Amelia, when all other alternatives fail, to take the kids with her across the border to the wedding.

The three venues are connected by thin plot threads, tiny coincidences that nonetheless link the three families in a six-degrees-of-separation way. Not coincidentally, the connections are made through fathers. Although the goatherd is unaware of its history, his rifle originally belonged to the Japanese father, who had brought it to Morrocco years before to hunt big game; and the American wife (Cate Blanchett) who has been dragged along on her husband’s trip is leaning unhappily on the tour bus window when she is shot, almost randomly, by one of the Moroccan boys while he is playing with the rifle. These coincidences tenuously tie the three families together.

The Tower of Babel is described in the Bible as a vainglorious monument that led God to punish its ancient Jewish builders by dispersing them across the face of the earth and causing them to speak in different tongues, so that they could no longer live in solidarity or understand one another. In paintings, the Tower is depicted as a pyramidal or circular structure with an outer ramp cycling upward. Similarly, this film moves us round and round, among the three plots and across the globe; we circle the events as though we were on an invisible people-mover, looking in from the outside. As we look in on the stories, we begin to perceive their thematic interconnections and to make sense of the film’s babel of different languages (including the languages of silence employed by the deaf-mute daughter). The many voices eventually coalesce into a single set of messages that, while they in some ways contradict one another, also form a coherent whole.

One message concerns responsibility. Iñárritu and Arriaga do not try to trace lines between criminal, civil, and personal responsibility but rather are concerned to show how very difficult it is even for devoted parents to avoid irresponsibility with their children. As a result of giving his sons the rifle, the Moroccan father sees one son shot and the second one surrender to the police. As a result of his careful but cold parenting, the Japanese father pushes his daughter into substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and utter misery. As a result of his self-indulgent tourism and colonialist interest in the exotic, the American father very nearly loses his two children to death by starvation in the desert. Moreover, Robert is indirectly responsible for the border patrol’s discovery that Amelia is an illegal immigrant. In all three cases, these are not “bad” fathers–they love their children and give parenting what they consider their best effort. But through their actions, all three almost lose their children.

Amelia’s nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) has no children but he too carries forward the theme of responsibility by failing in the one task required of him. It is he who picks up Amelia and her two young American charges in his sedan to take them over the border. At the wedding he gets drunk; and on the return trip, his inebriated folly at the border check point and subsequent flight leads to the abandonment of the children and nanny in the desert.

Babel: the title reminds us that ever since God forced the ancient Hebrews to give up on their effort to commemorate themselves with the Tower of Babel, we have been unable to love and communicate as we should. Inadvertent irresponsibility has become part of the human condition. We cannot protect our children from ourselves. If there is hope, it lies in art, here specifically in a film that can help us communicate across the barriers of place and language and discover our commonalities. Through filmwork, Iñárritu and Arriaga rebuild the abandoned tower, silently circling the globe, not to celebrate mankind but to understand the human condition.

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Nicole Rafter is the author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, a sociocultural study of the crime film genre. She is currently a professor at Northeastern University in the Law, Policy, and Society program. Her column is published on the 4th Tuesday of every month. Check out past columns on The History of Violence, Sex Crime Movies, Inside Man and Miami Vice and her intro.

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