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BABEL: A Critique

If you want to be understood, listen… This is the tagline of Babel, and essentially, this is what the film is all about. Because of cultural and language barriers, it is sometimes hard for each of us to understand each other. And in the three interconnected subplots of the movie Babel, this is shown again and again and again — in different settings, in different countries, dealing with different problems. The movie stars the Oscar Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Gael Garcia Bernal, and local actors from the countries where the movie was shot.

I expected great performances and for me, all the actors delivered — especially the Moroccan kid brothers that play a pivotal role in the film! As with the previous movies of its director, Babel has no straightforward narrative. If you happen to watch the movie starting from the middle part, STOP, and start from the beginning. To fully understand the film’s message and feel its impact, one must watch the movie in its entirety, and most importantly, from start to finish. Babel started quite slow.

It followed a couple’s vacation in Morocco (Richard and Susan, played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), taken so that they could heal after the death of one of their children. But instead of getting close, the disconnection between the husband and wife is almost palpable. At one point, Susan even asked her husband “What are we doing here Richard? ” And he answered, “To be alone. ” And you can see on Susan’s face that this is not what she wants. But, unfortunately, Richard never understood what she wants and what she needs to heal.

And so they continued with the trip — they ride on a tourist bus and there, Susan was shot (the news were reporting it was a terrorist attack; in reality it was just two kids bragging who can shoot the farthest). At this point, the movie’s pace became fast. There is chaos and confusion everywhere as Richard tried to save his wife. The film captured perfectly the frustration of the husband when each of his plan to help his wife failed. Moroccan drivers who pass by their tourist bus were overwhelmed with his cries for help (to them English is a foreign language) and left without helping.

Or maybe, they know exactly what Richard wants but why would they go out of their way to help a foreigner who sees them as terrorists? The film left the viewers pondering this. Later in the day, Susan was finally by a doctor though Richard is kind of unsure of taking his services. But, he really doesn’t have any choice. Babel clearly showed that in moments of extreme distress, whether you understand your rescuer’s culture and their ways or not, you will accept their help. You have no other choice.

Now since Susan and Richard are stuck in Morocco, they called up their Mexican housekeeper (Amelia, played by Adriana Barraze) taking care of their other two kids back in America. Richard told her to stay put at home but Amelia’s son is having a wedding in Mexico – and she can’t afford to miss that. Thus, she disregarded her employer’s command and took her two charges with her to Mexico. The kids were pretty excited with the “adventure” and had a great time in the Mexican wedding.

Babel makes you think — finally, a happy story in a depressing film where accidents and what-nots happen to regular persons. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Babel twists your heart even further. In the movie, you’ll get to love Amelia coz she really had the kids’ best interests in her heart. And thus you will feel angry and pity when she is wrongly held up at the US-Mexico border due to the harsh immigration policies of the Bush administration. And you feel even more frustrated why she has to be with that stupid nephew of hers who only understand the language of violence and guns.

He evaded the law, leading to a disastrous car chase, leaving Amelia and the kids stuck in the desert. They have no water, no food, no thick clothes. The big question: will they survive?? By this time, Babel will have you nail biting at the suspense of what will happen to each of the characters. Many critics don’t like the way Babel was done, calling it too emotional and exaggerated. But to me, it was pretty realistic. It had me thinking, how many Mexican and Middle East violence news we heard that were just a result of language barrier?

Just imagine, there was just a little misunderstanding but because both sides have inherent mistrust of the people that can’t speak their language (and can’t understand the other’s language), everything is blown up and violence ensues. To tie up the loose ends of the movie, the story of how the rifle came to the two Moroccan kids who shot Susan must be told. Apparently it was given by a wealthy Japanese man to his Moroccan guide after a safari trip as a token of his gratitude.

And he has a deaf daughter who is struggling to fit in the world full of sounds. She badly needs her father’s attention but it eluded her since her mother’s death. Truth be told, I can’t relate much on this part of the movie – perhaps because I’m not deaf and cannot imagine how it is to be deaf and left alone in auditory experiences (disco dancing, singing, hearing laughter, etc). Still, Babel did well to convey how lonely the Japanese daughter was, and how messed up her father is about her mother’s death.

Now, to the rifle — the guide who owns it gave it to a Moroccan farmer as a payment. His two kids, having the usual sibling rivalry, challenged each other as to who could shoot the farthest. The younger, more hotheaded kid won (he shot Susan accidentally), which set in motion the plot of the movie. Since it was allegedly a “terrorist attack” on Americans, a manhunt was ordered. And for me, this is the most heart-wrenching part of the movie — as the manhunt for the shooter neared its end, the noose closed on the two kids.

And they had a shootout with the police. Yes, kids versus police! If that’s not wicked, if that does not make you see how twisted our world has become, then I pity you. In conclusion, Babel was a thought-provoking movie. It made me realize if it’s hard to communicate with someone who speaks your language, how much harder it is to understand the people who speak a different one? And what about those who can’t speak? Call me a pessimist, but I feel that unless we all speak one language, there won’t be peace on earth.

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