Modern man has paid God back by deconstructing his Word to the point that subjectivity and random interpretation leave God speechless and the nations scrambling even to gesture at reconciliation. This is the world of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film, Babel , in which chaos is unleashed with the flick of a trigger finger and language fails to discharge.
Babel ‘s whirlwind story is set into motion when a Moroccan goat-herder’s son, unable to comprehend the demands of an unintelligible adolescent lust, and given a high-powered Winchester rifle with which to shoot jackals, takes aim at a tour bus in order to test its¯his¯power. He thinks the gun a failure and that the bullet has fallen short, but in fact he has shot an American (Cate Blanchette) visiting Morocco with her husband (Brad Pitt). Thus begins a concatenated progression with global implications.
Back in the States, the American couple’s Mexican nanny must now choose between staying at her post, caring for their two young children, or leaving them behind so she can attend her son’s wedding south of the border. She chooses to take them with her, testing the power of her authority as the children’s long-term caregiver. She learns as she attempts to cross back that the U.S. border guards are able to bring that power to nothing with a simple demand for paperwork.
Half a world away, in what seems like an absurd digression, a deaf-mute teen in Tokyo attempts to bridge the gulf of her isolation by flaunting her sexuality, failing to understand its power. How does she fall in with the main scenario? Her father, a prosperous businessman, is the one who gave the Winchester to a Moroccan tour guide while on a hunt sometime back. The tour guide sold the gun to the goat herder, who in turn placed it in his son’s hands.
All these characters are strangers to each other and to themselves, lost in a labyrinth of tangled meaning and voiceless longings. All are tangentially connected in one great human family. We are all divided by the walls that technology, politics, and cultures have built. Who or what will knock them down?
This is a generous interpretation of the film. A more cynical one would be that it’s a shaggy Pulp Fiction story about the cycles of violence caused in the Third World by that ever-present plaything, the American gun. Unfortunately, for all its pretensions to insight into the human condition, Babel is a victim of its own gimmick. The Tokyo story is related to the main scenario only by force of plot device, and the reckless grasping for tangible affection by the Japanese teen is, frankly, a lugubrious and exploitive bit of business.
Despite the desperation that marks all these characters as they scramble to repair the damage, the script feints at a happy ending. But the note of hope, that the vast gulf between people may be bridged, rings false. When the characters confess their individual responsibility, their true powerlessness, when they strip themselves naked literally (in the case of the Tokyo teen) and figuratively and confess their guilt, there is resolution of a kind, a tying up of the storylines.
But the apparent denouement is a bad joke: All the characters have been set up to fail their families by circumstances beyond their control. The reason the Americans are touring Morocco in the first place is to outrun the pain of a dead baby and the crumbling marriage left in its wake. At whose doorstep do we lay sudden-infant-death syndrome? Who is responsible for the Japanese teen’s sensory solitude and the suicide of her mother, which have left her groping for connectedness? Who is responsible for the cultural isolation of the Moroccans, in which adolescents have no vocabulary for their nascent sexuality or means of measuring the distance between themselves and the world beyond their mud huts?
Everyone is a victim yet everyone is responsible. But in this deterministic universe, the elect are the First Worlders, for whom law and political influence are able to stave off catastrophe. Yes, they suffer too, but they emerge whole, even stronger, for all they endure. It is the poor who are cast into outer darkness. The Mexicans and the Moroccans are doomed from the start. For them the law serves only as judge, jury, and hangman. And politics¯namely American politics¯has already branded them terrorists and aliens. They will be punished with a permanent exile, as befits the reprobate. This is a shotgun wedding of John Calvin and Karl Marx officiated by the implacable laws of a blind economic history (shotgun courtesy of Uncle Sam).
Babel is not a bad film but a failed film. Iñárritu is a talented director with a lot on his mind (his 21 Grams in 2003 was another attempt to show the surprising interconnectedness of life). There are some powerful and affecting performances in Babel , especially by Adrianna Barraza as the nanny, who I would not be surprised to see receive an Oscar nomination. While the A-list stars, Pitt and Blanchette, bring a certain cachet to the picture, they could easily have been replaced by a number of equally suitable celebs¯think Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, or Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow.
But what Babel might have been is hinted at in an interview Iñárritu gave to Christianity Today . There the director said Babel was a story about "an absence of God. In a way, we have been dealing with the consequences of our own greed, our own selfishness . . . . God made it very clear what we need to do. And we are the ones that haven’t followed those rules." God may be absent in Babel , but religion is never far, via images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, minarets, and the traditional Muslim greeting of Salaam alecheim . But no one prays. Apparently, no one who can translate the language of God anymore.
"I have been raised in a Catholic family. My mother is a practicing Catholic. I went to a Catholic college," yet "I respect every religion," Iñárritu added in that same CT interview. But not all religions understand human relatedness and personal responsibility in the same way. Had Iñárritu drawn more deeply from the well of his cradle Catholicism, he might have broken free of the determinism underlying the apparent bedlam of his story.
Instead of the rule of lawlessness in a law-ridden world, in which God cannot break through because the narrative has been rigged to hit political talking points (despite the director’s insistence that our problems are our problems), Iñárritu could have opened a space for grace, not just good fortune, and for the Word that does not return empty. A tale of human fragmentation demanding we be our brothers’ keeper¯because our motives are mysteries and our actions escape us in ways unforeseen¯could have ended on a note of real reconciliation, not a mere kiss in close-up between two Hollywood stars.
So God sends the Towel of Babel crashing down and Iñárritu takes on the Sisyphean task of reconstructing coherence out of the old materials. Had he, instead, lifted up the crossbeams on which true hope once hung, his would have been a prophetic witness to the one who promised to draw all people to himself and who on Pentecost sent the Spirit to restore a common language to a new transnational family¯the language of peace that passes understanding.
Anthony Sacramone is the managing editor of First Things .