FILM REVIEW:  Constructing and Deconstructing Languages of Alienation in “Babel”
Posted Mar 27, 2008

FILM REVIEW:  Constructing and Deconstructing Languages of Alienation in “Babel”

by David Shasha

(“Babel” (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and Guillermo Arriaga, 2006)

In the cemetery of Bagneux, departement de la Seine, rests my mother.  In old Cairo, in the cemetery of sand, my father.  In Milano, in the dead marble city, my sister is buried.  In Rome where the dark dug out the ground to receive him, my brother lies.  Four graves.  Three countries.  Does death know borders?  One family.  Two continents. Four cities.  Three flags.  One language: of nothingness.  One pain.  Four glances in one.  Four lives.  One scream.

Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions: Return to the Book

The generative myth of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is an attempt to account for the breakdown of human unity amid a welter of different languages.  If we cannot speak in the same tongue then we are forced to live separately and at odds with one another.  The text in the Book of Genesis accounts for this reality by showing a group of primeval human beings seeking to storm the very gates of heaven.  The people were of “one speech and many words.”  They had a single way of communicating, but different ideas.  Hereafter, they would not only be separated by their ideas, but by the way in which they could communicate those ideas with one another.

The Tower of Babel is a myth that has gripped Western understanding of culture and pluralism.  Underlying the myth of Babel is the idea that there is a violent force that brings people to seek and to conquer that which they do not understand.  The punishment here is meant to fit the crime: for the violation of the sacred space of God the violators of Babel are marked with the affliction of different and incompatible languages.

The 2006 film “Babel” is a meditation on the myth of the Tower of Babel that shows us a world that is unified by the needs and desires of the human, but which is fatally caught in a whirlwind of mutual incomprehension where people cannot understand what others are saying to them.

The four stories of “Babel” are intertwined with one another.  The central linking element is a rifle that passes from a Japanese businessman who goes on a hunting trip to Morocco where he gives the rifle as a gift to his native guide.  The rifle changes hands from the Moroccan guide who sells it to another man who buys it in order to kill off the jackals that plague his flock of goats.  The rifle is then put into the hands of the man’s two young sons who become curious to see whether the rifle will be able to shoot a length of three kilometers as has been advertised by the seller.  When they aim the rifle at a tourist bus passing on the road below, an American tourist from California is shot in the neck by the bullet.  The person shot is a mother and wife who has come with her husband to Morocco on a vacation to forget the recent death of an infant child.  Back in California, the couple’s two surviving children are being taken care of by a Mexican woman who is trying to get back to Mexico to attend her son’s wedding.

This complex scenario is made even more complicated by the story of the Japanese hunter and his deaf daughter.  The young girl has lost her mother in circumstances that are never made clear to us.  It would appear that the mother took her own life, but we do not know how or why. All we know is that the young girl is deeply troubled and acts out her pain in the manner of the current misanthropic dysfunctionalism du jour; she does provocative things like walk around without panties, come on sexually to her dentist and generally act in a sluttish way.  The young Japanese girl uses her sexuality to express her own personal anomie and alienation; her deafness is a malady that serves to redoubles her pain over the loss of her mother and which incites others to treat her with apathy and disdain.

“Babel” unfolds like a richly dense and allusive piece of literature: the stories crisscross and zigzag with one another during its heady course.  We move from California to Japan to Morocco to Mexico in a vertiginous daze which allows us to see the cognitive dissonance that is generated from languages that do not quite line up with one another.  People are translating for one another and cultural codes break down during the course of the translations.  To make things more difficult, the narrative plays with time in a way where the events do not occur in a synchronized framework.  Minor alterations of the temporal scheme take place that disorient the viewer.

The politics of a post-9/11 world are never very far from the surface of the narrative: after the American woman is shot by the Moroccan boy, a frenzied attempt at getting the woman to the hospital takes place.  The wounded woman, played by the actress Cate Blanchett, becomes a political football as the American embassy marks the shooting – incorrectly – as a terrorist act.  Once terrorism enters the picture, the life of Blanchett is less important than the purported geopolitical implications of the act.  The US embassy refuses attempts by the Moroccans to have an ambulance sent to transport her to a hospital from the remote desert village where she is now bleeding to death.  The passengers on the tourist bus, mainly British and French couples, become increasingly worried that the natives will come out of their hovels with machetes to kill them.  They are panicked by the worry of the Arab Other who is viewed as a terrorist.

The political complications are compounded when we see the Mexican housekeeper back in San Diego.  Trying desperately to find someone who can watch Blanchett’s two children when she goes back to Mexico for her son’s wedding, the maid becomes increasingly frenzied.  Her devotion to the American family is absolute, but has now been compromised by the events in Morocco.  We hear Blanchett’s husband, played by Brad Pitt, first telling the maid that he will arrange for someone to come and watch the kids – but then hear that he has been unsuccessful and that he is depending on her to stay. 

Loyalty is here something that is obscured by the power relations between the individuals.  The Mexican illegal is subservient to the rich American and is trapped in his grip.  She is not oblivious to his dilemma, but after all this is her son’s wedding.  She is now torn between her devotion to her son and to the responsibilities of her job.  Desperate to resolve both problems, she fatefully decides to bring the two kids to the wedding.

Her nephew comes from Mexico to drive her to the wedding with the kids now in tow for the trip.  As their mother is suffering in Morocco, the children embark on what will become a dangerous trip across a border which is now charged with the political electricity of the current American debate over illegal immigration.  Leaving the US is a simple affair – getting back in is not.

While all this is taking place, we see the young Japanese girl and her life in Tokyo.  She is a very troubled young lady who frequently flies off the handle and is quick to use her sexuality in quite provocative and often transgressive ways.  She and her friends cruise the electrified boulevards of Tokyo – a place of ominous and anonymous modernity – without the ability to hear.  We see them flirting with boys, getting stoned and living on the edge of the law.  It is clear to us that the girl’s deafness and the great difficulty that she has in communicating with others points to a serious void in her life that is redoubled by the personal tragedy of the loss of her mother.  Here the Babel model works at the level of an absence of spoken and heard language.  The young woman cannot hear and speak as others do.  And because of this her world is fraught with pain and imbalance.

Back in Morocco, we see a predatory Moroccan police scouring the mountain villages for the perpetrator of the shooting.  The police act with flagrant disregard for the niceties of civilized policing and beat up and threaten anyone in their way.  The children who have the rifle are themselves distraught over the mistake they have made.  But a mistake it is – there is no malicious intent or terrorist implications involved in the action.  Here the language conundrum is absolute: the Americans have raised the shooting to an international incident when in reality it is merely the foolish act of a couple of kids who do not understand what they are doing.

The language conundrum redoubles the alienation of the non-Arab tourists in Morocco.  As Blanchett is brought into the village, we see a community that expresses the traditional Arab hospitality at the very same moment that the tourists are filled with dread and pathological fear that these same Arabs will kill them.  The block between the languages and the way in which they are parsed is absolute.  Pitt is initially comforted by the help provided to him and his wife by the Arab villagers, but he increasingly takes out his understandable frustrations on the people of the community who are just trying to help him.

The US embassy is responsible for blocking the ambulance and from providing the help the bleeding woman desperately needs.  The danger comes not from the Arab villagers, but from a hysterical American bureaucracy that is now shot through with wild visions of Al-Qa’ida terrorists.

The trip to Mexico is a release for the housekeeper and the children.  The celebration of the son’s wedding liberates the group and they cut loose.  The little children enjoy the celebration and integrate into the native element.  But tragedy is always waiting in the wings.  After a long-night’s celebration, the nephew who drove the group to Mexico decides to drive them back.  Now drunk, the nephew foolishly takes a short cut through a desolate area and the crossing over the border turns into a tragedy.  After losing his battle with the border agents to be let peacefully through the crossing, the nephew decides to hit the gas pedal with aggression and a chase ensues.  In the midst of the chase, the children in hysterics, he drops the three off in the middle of the desert where they spend the night.  In the morning, frantic and hysterical, the housekeeper seeks help to get them back home.  Of course, she is picked up by the police and arrested while the children are left behind.  And though the children are eventually found by the border patrol, the housekeeper is less fortunate.  She is arrested and deported back to Mexico.

The web of these intricately complex tales is an infinitely reflecting set of mirrors that are united by the misadventures involving language and (mis)understanding of the Other.  The Tower of Babel model functions at the level of dysfunction and alienation.  Systems of thinking clash and break up the ability of human beings to communicate and express their own values and needs.  The hegemonic construct of American superiority infuses the various discourses with a cruelly pathological irony: Americans turn to outsiders to help and protect them, but immediately turn on those people when trouble arises. 

Loyalty is here a one-way street: Americans demand fidelity and respect from others, but others are not granted the same respect in return.  The Mexican maid is expected to watch the kids, but she is not permitted to take care of her own son on his wedding day.  The Moroccans are expected to care for an American woman who has been wrongly shot by a couple of their kids, but the Moroccans cannot expect that the Americans will respect their own national integrity as they are all marked as terrorists.

This series of degenerative pathologies is tied together in the figure of Chieko, the deaf Japanese girl who is motherless.  Her behavior reinforces the dysfunctional state of communication and discourse along the lines of the Babel model.  No one is able to understand the young girl just as no one is able to understand the Mexican maid or the Moroccan boys.  No one seeks to speak to these alien non-Americans as human beings or to provide them with the rights that Americans expect as part of some natural due course.  There is here, post-Babel, a hierarchy of languages and cultures that infects the human condition.  Some people naturally see themselves as superior to others.

In this context, the security of Americans is not at all protected.  Blanchett and her children are put at risk because of this vain and vulgar American triumphalism.  As the border patrol seeks to arrest and deport the maid, there is little sense that the maid is the one who is protecting the children and that if she is in danger, they are in danger as well.  The organic interrelation between the Mexicans and the Americans is ignored.  And in the case of the Moroccan debacle, the concern about international Arab terrorism permits the US embassy to ignore the pressing needs of Blanchett who is in effect put into even more danger by the decision to wait five days to get her to a hospital. 

“Babel” is a fierce and unsparing construction of a world that has been decentered by the ways in which language separates human beings.  The various discourses are wrenched apart and it is this that tears human beings apart and creates the distrust, hatred and violence that subsume the film’s many characters.  Beginning with the innocuous gift of a rifle to a Moroccan peasant, we see the ways in which signs and symbols can link human beings across continents and across cultures, but when filtered through the semiotics of communicating systems such as language that very unity is deconstructed and torn to shreds.

The generative myth of the Tower of Babel serves as the formative template upon which the intertwined narratives are constructed, but which is transformed along the lines of current concerns.  Against an incipient Humanism that seeks to protect the inherent dignity of the individual, “Babel” exposes the dysfunctional realities of the present moment: the carcinogenic hatreds that are subsumed under the rubrics of nationalisms, sexualities, politics and media babblings all form a deeply disturbing and disturbed universe where human beings seeking stability and security are left with no protection.  All that is left in “Babel” is the principle that “might makes right.”

The stronger is able to withstand the babble and incoherence of the clash of languages and communications by their ability to crush the Other.  Mechanisms of control are imposed by means of the policemen that appear throughout the film as an ominous specter.  Oblivious to the basic needs of human beings, the police are charged with sorting out the anarchy that has been generated by alienated languages and fractured discourses.  Rather than seeking to find a way to repair and heal the broken state of the protagonists, the police act as a mechanism of punishment and retribution meant to break the will of the Other and act as an affront to the dignity of mankind.

“Babel” is a prolix and complex piece of art that speaks to the very intense heart of human civilization.  Its overlapping and interwoven narratives are fractured by the use of varying time frames and wildly disparate emotional states.  It is a dense and allusive work whose seemingly infinite meanings continue to open up and flower on repeated viewings of the film.  The movie continues to shift perspective depending upon the angle which one uses to view it.  Different valuations and different meanings emerge depending upon the viewer’s perspective.

While “Babel” constructs its events in a particular manner based on our present circumstances, the overarching themes of the work restore for us the Biblical vision of a tortured humanity that cannot understand itself.  The damage that is created by the babble of tongues occurs over the course of time and is not limited to any specific cultural construct.  The myth of Babel is predicated on the pain and cruelty of humanity and our inability to treat one another with kindness, decency and respect.  Watching the pathetic attempts of the protagonists of “Babel” to find comfort, stability and protection in a world of hate, violence and corruption marks for us a cultural moment that serves as a warning to the vile ways in which we act with one another.

The implicit warning of “Babel” is that we cannot survive if we do not understand who we are and what we are doing to one another.  We must find ways to translate our many tongues to discover a shared framework, a common way of being human.  The film in no way seeks to paper over or disregard the complications inherent in the post-9/11 world, but it cries out to its audience that we must restore a basic core of Humanistic values that will assuage the pain caused by the violence of language and the cruel ways in which imperial hegemonies are formed and executed.

The imperial hegemon in this case is Western, and more specifically American.  The film seeks to examine and critique American global dominance and hegemony; a system which privileges one language and one culture at the expense of others.  It is not an attempt to compromise the humanity of the West or of the Americans, but to ensure that all nations and all political systems serve equally to enforce the rights of all human beings. 

The first step of this process – always the most difficult – is for those who have violated the rights of others to acknowledge that they are themselves only one branch of the global family.  They are not the masters of the world and should not act as if they control others like puppets on a string.  Law is a means to effect justice and not a means to place people in danger.

The clash of languages bespeaks a clash of civilizations.  It can happen on the US-Mexico border, it can happen in a village in the Atlas mountains many miles from urban civilization, it can happen amid the glitter and bright neon lights of post-modern Tokyo, or it can happen in the paranoid world of a young deaf girl whose lack of hearing is a sign to others that she is outside the realm of civilization.  The myth of Babel is a myth that can teach us how humanity can adopt cruel and malicious postures and how people can be made to suffer just for trying to live and get along in the world.

“Babel” as a film reminds us of what it means to be a human being and forces us to confront our own humanity and the ways in which we act in the world and how we look at our neighbors.  In our gaze we can see the suffering, feel the pain and hear the piercing screams of those whose languages have torn them apart and whose cultures have marked them as alien and as Other.  The lesson of the film is that we must acknowledge and respect Difference, but, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has noted in his brilliant new book The House We Build Together, must never permit Difference to tear down the shared space that we all inhabit as members of the human family.