“The film is about the fact that nobody’s listening,” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu said of his new film “Babel” during a recent stopover in Dallas. “It’s not political, it’s about human relations. But what happens between governments and cultures is the same as what happens between a father and a daughter, or a husband and a wife. That’s what my film is about. We make the same mistakes in the global macro-system and the micro-system. I wanted to explore that with compassion, without judging, without preaching.”
Like Inarritu’s previous films “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” also written by Guillermo Arriaga, “Babel” links together what appear to be very separate stories–in this case, four of them. One involves a rural family in Morocco, whose father gives his young sons a rifle to protect their goats from predators. The second concerns an American couple (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) touring Morocco and traveling by bus past the field where the boys’ animals are grazing when one of the youngsters decides to shoot at the vehicle, striking Blanchett. While she lies in a rural village while Pitt and the sympathetic local guide try to arrange treatment and evacuation, the police search for what are presumed to be the terrorists who shot her. Meanwhile the distraught Pitt calls home in California, telling their housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) that she’ll have to stay with the couple’s two young children, though she’s planning to go to her son’s wedding in Mexico; eventually she decides to take them with her–and her loose-cannon nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal)–a decision that takes a dangerous turn when they try to pass through the border station on their return and encounter a suspicious guard. Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated story in Tokyo, a deaf-mute girl (Rinko Kikuchi) tries to cope with her mother’s death, her own sexual longing and her estrangement from her father. A concluding twist links this story to the others.
The germ of this complicated narrative structure came from the director. “I got the idea for the film, and then I invited Guillermo, and he liked the concept,” Inarritu explained. “Then he started to write some storylines he shared with me. We picked some of them, and from these we started interchanging ideas and stories and characters for a long time. It was a very long, very intense process, a very difficult equation to solve. I had the idea to have five stories on five continents. We were trying to juggle five oranges–and five was too much.” So the duo cut back to four interlocked stories.
The difficulty remained, he continued, “how to find something that integrates four diverse and different stories, cultures, forces and people that will never connect physically. Then you have to adjust and rewrite, and to go from the abstract to the concrete world, which is always shocking. On the screen, [the question is] how we’re going to get the language, the grammatical or cinematic language, that can get [the stories] together.” One of the solutions was to shoot each segment differently–“in 16mm. In Morocco, in 35mm. In Mexico. And in the Japanese story, we used anamorphic lenses, because the depth of field is minimal–the character is in focus and everything else out of focus. That isolates the character. It was a long process, but a very beautiful one for me.”
One aspect of “Babel” that gives the film a striking sense of authenticity was Inarritu’s decision to employ non-professionals in many of the supporting roles, including the children in both the Moroccan and the U.S.-Mexican segments. “I wanted to go for the real thing,” he explained. But the decision to integrate non-professional with established performers, he added, was “very difficult. It’s like putting a superstar quarterback with people that have never played football.” But when the process works, he added, the result is exceptional: “When the kids are real and they express themselves, it’s magical.”
Inarritu aimed throughout to tell the stories in such a way as to express the perspective of the local characters. That was especially important, he said, in the Japanese segment. “With most western films that go to these territories to shoot, normally the director and the director of photography are trapped in their own interests, their own point of view as westerners. So you end up seeing films that are shot from the point of view of the westerner–films that are very touristy, I would say. I wanted to shoot something from the point of view of a deaf Japanese girl. [My] point of view has to be subordinated to the drama of the character. That’s what I tried to be conscious of, all the time, in order that viewers can have the feeling of what it is to be a Japanese living in Japan, not a tourist visiting Japan.
“Stereotyping cultures–that’s what is spoiling the world, I think,” Inarritu said. And in “Babel” he tries to show how an inability to understand others has crippled relationships, first on the individual level and then by extension on the socio-political one, in a quartet of stories that are dramatically arresting as well.