Power of ‘Babel’

Filmmaker González Iñárritu uses biblical inspiration for movie starring Pitt, Blanchett

Normally, when a film is described as “ambitious,” that means it’s a big messy failure. But in the case of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, “Babel,” it means he’s referring to one of the great examples of hubris; when, in the Bible, humans build a tower to reach the heavens, God topples it and gives them different languages so as to limit their ability to communicate and hence to attain divine status.

Each of the film’s characters faces difficulty in communicating with the people closest to them. Shot on three continents and in five languages, the film tells the interlocking stories of an American couple traveling in Morocco, the Moroccan family whose fate becomes intertwined with theirs, their Mexican nanny back in the United States and a deaf Japanese girl and her father. As with his previous films, “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” the narrative and thematic connections among the various stories emerge over the course of the picture.

As intimate as the stories in “Babel” are, they also touch on global political concerns. González Iñárritu started the film in anger.

“Still I am angry,” he said, “about how many stupid decisions human beings are making, and that cost the lives of so many kids in the world.”

He was particularly moved by the bombing of Iraq and immigration policies in the United States and Mexico. And while the film addresses those issues, “I didn’t want to be explicit,” the director said.

The process of making “Babel” transformed González Iñárritu. While the film boasts stars such as Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael García Bernal, it also features many non-actors who González Iñárritu said helped make the film more authentic and expressive.

“To see their faces, they have what I wanted to say about those characters. To find tenderness in a face, or rage, or sadness, it was beautiful,” he said. “It forced me to be more sensitive.”

Sensitivity is in full evidence. Amid a crisis, the American couple struggles to reconcile the loss that has divided them. The Moroccan boys fumble and lie to protect themselves from the disastrous consequences of actions lightly taken. We watch in sympathy and dread as they and the other families in the film — for families are at its center — become enveloped in circumstances borne of their own inabilities to communicate.

Asked what he envisioned when he first conceived of the project, González Iñárritu said, “This. Exactly this. If I had been a sculptor, metaphorically, and if I imagine an elephant, I will need to take the right stone and then take out everything that is not an elephant. I know exactly what I want. To get there is difficult. There are so many decisions visually and cinematographically. I’m not the kind of director that makes people aware that I am a cool director and I make impossible technical shots. My job is to disappear.”

As González Iñárritu disappears, the audience is left only with the tales of people who are scattered, struggling to cross personal and cultural boundaries and maybe, just maybe, attain something more human: the shared language to connect, now that Babel has fallen.

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