Babel

Caught Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel on tv again last night – a beautiful, gut wrenching and entirely appalling exposition of the confusions and mistakes and misunderstandings that separate us. In light of the xenophobic wrath unfolding in Johannesburg right now, it’s a timely reminder of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – our humanity connects us, a person is a person through other persons. But then, Desmond Tutu is my hero.

Starring a toned-down Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Babel features four stories that revolve around the central tale of an American couple on a vacation in Morocco. She is badly wounded when a bullet is fired through a tour bus window by a child playing with a gun. Meanwhile, back in America, the couple’s children travel into Mexico illegally with the family’s housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), to attend her son’s wedding near Tijuana. They are accompanied by Amelia’s unstable nephew (Gael García Bernal). And far away in Tokyo, a deaf teenage girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) spins through the emotional upheavals of adolescence, disability and her mother’s suicide.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syfU7drScwg; 350 350]

Each place has its own aural and visual palette, and the fine cinematography distinctly captures the harsh light and dessicated landscapes of Morocco and the Mexican border, as well as the neon chaos of Tokyo. As the movie jumps from place to place and time to time, we learn that the narratives are intertwined and, inspite of the misunderstandings of language (the cast speak Spanish, Berber, Japanese and sign language, as well as English) that everyone is somehow linked.

There’s an interesting insight into the director’s choice of locations and the impact of those choices on the film via the production notes at Movie Grande.

A couple of things stand out for me. Talking of the experience of filming on the edge of the Sahara, Iñárritu says: “The heat was brutal and uncomfortable, but it’s precisely what this story is about. This was not only method acting but method execution.”

And at the other end of the spectrum, Tokyo -the only urban location – was rife with its own challenges. Says Iñárritu; “Things work slowly there and there’s no film commission to help you through. There’s no permission to shoot anything, so you are always escaping from the police at every corner. We had to be brave and work like a guerilla-style crew, ready to improvise, moving fast.”

And that’s why we need Film Commissions……