29 January 2007

Babel - Epic of anxiety

"Come. Let us build a city for ourselves, and a tower, the top of which reaches the heavens. So let us make a name for ourselves lest we be scattered over the face of the entire earth.[...].

Come. Let us go down and let us confuse their language so that they will not un­derstand each other's language, each will not understand their fellow. So Yahweh scattered them from there over the face of the entire earth, and they stopped building the city."

-- Babel, Genesis (Chapter 11)

To prove Man's power, men started to build the Babel tower, and men ended up in miscommunication with each speaking his own language. Today, with all the technological advancement, the world is getting smaller and language barrier ceased to exist. Yet, people are more than ever incapable of understanding each other. The distance is the mental coldness and the barrier is our eagerness to be understood without the willingness to understand.

The Mexican director,
Alejandro González Iñárritu, created this epic of anxiety of modern man and woman who set their lives in Odyssey in search for reconciliation. In multiple inter-cut story strands, the film sets its four seemingly unrelated episodes in different country and native language. The first story takes place in Morocco when a goat-herder father passed on his two young sons a rifle he got from a black-market dealer to guard their goats from jackals. To test the power of the rifle, the aggressive and cunning young brother, Yussef, shot at a tourist bus and killed an American. In the hot climate of world politics, the incident was immediately blown up by the media to become a terrorist attack. In a fire confrontation with the police, the elder brother, Ahmed, was shot.

The second story takes place in a bourgeois home in San Diego where the Nanny (illegal immigrant from Mexico), Amelia decided to bring the two kids (Debbie and Mike) to Mexico to attend her son's wedding since she couldn't find a replacement. After the banquet, she confided the driving service back to San Diego to her nephew, Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is always charming but proved to be unreliable. To escape the border control, Santiago started a car-chase with the police. Amelia and the two kids ended up lost in the desert in desperation.

The third story is about the couple, Susan (Cate Blanchett) and Richard (Brad Pitt), who traveled to Morocco in order to recover from the grief of their recent lost of a third son. However, blame and misgiving followed them everywhere and griped them in every word they heard from the other. "I don't want to talk about it now." / "Tell me when you are ready for a confrontation!" They are drawing further away from each other with every passing moment in the trip. Then in a bus-ride through a mountain ridge, Susan was shot at the upper shoulder and dying.

The fourth story moves to Tokyo where the deaf-mute teen, Chieko, suffers from a psychic shock (witnessing the suicide of her mother) that affects her reality and moral balance. Her new life with the physically and emotionally absent father and her disabilities deprived her as a social and emotional outcast for all her physical allure. Loneliness and marginalized in the big, crowded city of Tokyo, she attempts to fill her strained, needful existence with a first sexual encounter. When a cop came up to her for an investigation on her father, she took the move.

Tragedy is universal
When men set themselves into endless Odyssey, tragedy becomes universal. All the stories are highly charged with dread and emotional tension as tragic incidents triggered by human stupidity and carelessness steadily multiply. We need no grand conspiracy to destroy someone's life but a mindless move or a little sign of impatience is good enough. It's only when looking back that we human beings are able to discern the thin line that separating the predictable and unpredictable consequence (the gun shot), the realistic and unrealistic decision (bringing kids to Mexico), the guided and misguided judgment (the car-chase), the contained and uncontained explosive impulsion of youth (Chieko's rebellion), forgiving and misgiving calculation between couples (Richard and Susan). With each story develops, the moment-to-moment focus in these life-and-death situations underlies a strong sense of irony that works like a last act of twist into a crime film. Yet, we see it clearly how innocent these people are, even the one who sets up the whole situation. "Misunderstanding" + "Bad Luck", is this the formula to the origin of human tragedy?!

Sacrifice of the innocent
When mindlessness and impulsiveness become aggressive, they can be culpable. Yet, in the film, it's always the one next to the aggressive who checks the bill. Ahmed got two bullets to repaid the two shots of his younger brother (one at Susan, one at another police); Amelia and the two kids' lost-in-the-desert Odyssey is a direct result of Santiago's brutal outrage after long-term deprivation; Susan's shot and belated treatment due to vexed diplomatic difficulties epitomizes America's paranoid and predicament in present world politics; Chieko's fatal temptation of the cop is the revenge for her insecurity and abandonment by the society.

Have we ever tried to stop the sacrifice of the innocent?
When Santiago grasps the head of a chicken at one hand and spins at high speed the chicken's body with the other hand, I think of the poor American man beheaded and filmed in Iraq. Santiago breaks the neck of the chicken in 5 seconds, much shorter than the Iraqi soldiers. Head-off, the chicken runs away in a degree of pain which is beyond my imagination. Hilarious, the Mexican kids chase the chicken while Mike is totally chocked. The kids' insanity is comparable to those who watched the video of ultimate human suffering. In the next shot, we see Mike eating a chicken drumstick, deliciously.

Would you also be one of the lambs of God?

The helplessness and the selfishness
Gunshot, car horns, disco beats, light flashes, yells, boisterous banquets, latin music, telephone shouts, heavy traffic and noises in an overcrowded city... People pushing, jolting, rushing here and there in hysterical screamings for help, for attention, for love... Yet, in the epic of anxiety and frustration, they are alone and helpless. Chieko's deaf leaves her in total silence, disco for her is no more than flashes, she can't even dance to the beats; Amelia is trapped in the vaste empty desert with two kids; Ahmed and Yussef are caught in unspeakable fear for being an international terrorist; Susan is abandonned in a rural village with a veterinarian and a witch-like woman to save her life. We are captivated in an eternal state of inner anxiety and agitation.

The performance of Brad Pitt is irreproachable. In him, we see the helplessness and frustration of a man. Wealthy and strong, Richard believed in his ability to protect his family and his loved ones. Yet, his youngest son died in sleep and now his wife is dying in his arm and he couldn't do anything but wait for the mercy of some distant gods. For Susan's fear is of mortality but also the "unjust" of being an American abandoned in a remote third world reality. For Richard, all these are the greatest punishments and mockery from the hell. His final emotional breakdown during his phone call with his little son is one of the most touching moments in the film.

While he was waiting for a helicopter in incertitude, some elder tourists and kids were getting sick from the heat and requested the bus to leave. Under the urgent stress, Richard could no longer be rational but selfish. The bus finally left in fear of another attack, leaving Richard and Susan in the village among the "terrorist".

The reconciliation
Is reconciliation possible? Iñárritu said "yes".

Therefore, Yussef disarmed and pleaded, "I killed the American, I was the only one who shot at you. They did nothing... nothing. Kill me, but save my brother, he did nothing... nothing. Save my brother... he did nothing."

Therefore, the lost-in-desert was ended and saved. Amelia would probably be sent back to Mexico where a potential lover is waiting for her.

Therefore, the Japanese cop clothed Chieko with his coat and read her love letter in a restaurant.

Therefore, on the TV screen the Japanese restaurant, the anchor reports in Japanese the safe return of Susan to the States after a false drama of terrorist attack.

All the four stories are cleverly linked up at the end. Chieko's father is a great adventurer whose absence might be the cause of his wife's suicide. The cop came to Chieko not for her mother's death but a rifle her father might have sold to a Moroccan some months ago. Her father did, but as a souvenir to his Moroccan guide. The rifle was later sold to Yussef's father and with it, Yussef shot Susan. Due to the accident, Richard and Susan's trip in Morocco was delayed. Therefore, Amelia had to bring their kids, Debbie and Mike, to Mexico for the wedding. Then there is the car-chase and lost-in-the-desert. The rifle is the link between all these people and it turned their lives into peril.

The most evident defeat of the film is the complete waste of Gael Garcia Bernal's talent as an actor. He plays this charming and unreliable young man, very convincingly, yes, and that's all. He is largely reduced to a minor role and I came to the cinema for him! Even worse, up to now, I can't figure out what happened to him at the end? Compeletly lost! On the contrary, the fours kids' performance in the film is extraordinary!

Photo credit: Babel (2006) Alejandro González Iñárritu


louisykl said...

i don't like the movie. on 1 hand it cleverly portrayed a serious of tragedy caused by people making stupid mistakes and showed us tragedy is universal, on the other hand it tells us 1st and 3rd world countries are just not the same. yes you will feel sad in US and Japan but you will get killed in morocco and maxico . it is soooooo mainstream!

dreamhunter said...

Oh, somehow i missed out this point. What you said here is very just. Nice to share ideas, too bad that no one is going to cinema with me here, and i have no one to talk to! :(

楊雅文 said...