The story of the Tower of Babel turns up in Hebrew and Muslim texts, as well as the Bible, but the basic gist is that men tried to build a stairway to heaven and God subverted them by giving them different languages. They could no longer understand each other, so the whole construction fell apart.
It's a powerful myth because it carries so many ideas: that there are two worlds and we got the lesser one; that God is spiteful; that cultural differences are the root of all our woes since then; even that crossing a border without permission will get you in a whole world of trouble.
Some scholars believe the tower was in southern Iraq, or in Babylon itself. The tragedy of modern Iraq is never mentioned in this superb new film but I'm sure that's one of the things on the minds of the filmmakers, the same Mexican writer and director team behind Amores Perros and 21 Grams.
The story of the tower works so well for what the film is about, which is that the relationship between rich and poor, as individuals or countries, is much more connected than we might think. It's a film about the terrible consequences of bad decisions.
Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are intended as a loose trilogy about the modern world. They fit together as a fairly pessimistic statement but that in itself is exciting. It tells us that writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu don't underestimate either audience or medium. Just when it seemed like the infantilisation of cinema was complete, along comes a film like Babel to challenge and revive your senses.
There are four stories here, taking place more or less simultaneously in four countries. Part of the challenge is to work out the film's complex time shifts. A phone call at the start recurs later in the film, to clarify the sequence of events, but it takes a while to realise that we're going back in time. Babel literally means confusion and the filmmakers take that as one of their (dis)organising principles. Chaos is a good thing in these movies; the fact that we're not sure what's going on is liberating.
The film begins in the mountains of Morocco. A man trades a gun to a family of goatherders. The father gives the rifle to his two sons, so they can shoot jackals. The boys take a pot shot at a distant tour bus, not expecting to hit anything. The bullet hits Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American woman, in the shoulder. At a small village where there is supposed to be a doctor, Richard (Brad Pitt) carries his wife into a dark house, where an old crone watches in silence. He then gets on the only phone in the village. Pretty soon the airwaves flash a story that terrorists have shot an American woman in Morocco.
Babel Brad Pitt
In California, Amelia, a Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza), is meant to go back to Tijuana for her son's wedding. She looks after the two children of Richard and Susan. "Cancel your son's wedding," Brad Pitt yells down the phone at Amelia. "I'll pay for a better one." In desperation Amelia takes Mike (Nathan Gamble) and his sister Debbie (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota) with her. Amelia's cocky young nephew, Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal), drives them across the border.
In Tokyo, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf mute schoolgirl of about 17, acts up sexually after the death of her mother. Her father (Koji Yakusho) can't communicate with her. "You never pay attention to me," she says, with angry sign language. This story appears unrelated to the other events but a link eventually becomes apparent.
If we look at these stories in a different way, they're all about children. The American couple is estranged after the recent death of a child; the Moroccan boys are being hunted by police; Amelia gets the two gringo children she loves into catastrophic trouble, because she wanted to see her son's wedding.
Each story is also about the illusion of safety. The move from a state of security to the complete opposite happens to all of these characters within a few hours, even minutes. Each follows a spur-of-the-moment decision, usually by one of the have-nots, that shatters the security of the haves. A more perfect metaphor for the world since September 11, 2001, would be hard to imagine.
I wasn't especially aware of these ideas as I was watching, because the action is too gripping. Each story is strong enough to sustain an entire film on its own. Putting them together creates a much more ambitious and mysterious patchwork of meaning.
Arriaga, who's also a novelist, seems to specialise in this kind of long, sinuous narrative. His script for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, has similar qualities.
Babel is not about a dialogue with God, despite the title. God has more or less abandoned the world that Arriaga writes about. These characters have to learn to talk to each other if they want to survive.