An impenetrable exterior: Susan filmed from outside the bus window.

Filming from outside a car is also a technique used to convey Chieko’s impenetrable exterior.

Chieko and her girlfriends are often framed with the camera’s objectifying gaze.

Chieko disappears in the arms of her father ...

... but her body is once again rendered vulnerable when the camera tracks back to reveal her nakedness.

Pleasure in looking: Yussef spies on his sister through a hole in the wall.

Pleasure in being looked at: Zohra responds to and further provokes Yussef’s taboo desire.

The young boy’s incestuous desire ...

... culminates in a controversial act of self-gratification.

The women’s laughter at Ahmed’s clumsy shooting and lack of skill indirectly challenges his sense of masculinity.

A manageable range of diversity: Babel’s DVD chapter divisions reveal the symmetrical structure of the film. The DVD chapters reveal a predictable rotation in the film’s move from one set of characters to the next: Moroccan – Mexican – U.S. – Japanese.

Crash: Hollywood’s idea of ethnic diversity.

Richard to Amelia: ‘‘This is an emergency! Cancel your son’s wedding!’’

A Wanted highway sign marks the entry into Mexico but also foreshadows Amelia's fate. The U.S.-Mexico border has a personal significance for the director, and the Wanted sign indicates his cultural stance.

A colorful montage of a vast array of images from Mexico ...

... bears the burden of representing the nation.

The Mexican wedding of Amelia's son. This particular ceremony ...

... becomes the film's testament to Mexican vernacular traditions.

Amelia’s secret romance is intercut with the wedding sequence.

Iñárritu follows the wedding celebration from beginning to end, which indicates a desire to represent the ceremony in its entirety.

What did the letter that Chieko gave the detective say? Viewers can only speculate.


Female suffering, objectification,
and victimization 

The web of globalized narratives intricately woven by Arriaga and Iñárritu has a U.S. focus that helps center the overarching storyline and simultaneously helps viewers navigate through the convoluted plot. Much like the car crash that loosely connects the stories in Amores Perros to each other, the shooting of Susan is the incident that consistently reappears, influences and/or informs the other narratives in Babel.[8][open endnotes in new window] The Japanese father may have been the one who provided the weapon that started the chain of events, but if the victim were not American then the event of the shooting might not have taken international proportions. All media coverage on the shooting – Moroccan, U.S. and Japanese – lay emphasis on the victim’s nationality. Inevitably, the film’s underlying discourse becomes politicized – at least on the level of reception. This happens despite the fact that the film tries to evade any overt political associations by adopting the same tactic Hollywood uses to evade ideological clashes: that of personalizing sociopolitical conflicts. Iñárritu himself claims that the ‘‘Babel’’ metaphor alludes to personal loneliness and isolation, rather than just linguistic and cultural barriers. According to Iñárritu,

‘‘the most terrifying loneliness and isolation is the one that we experiment with ourselves, our wives, and our children’’ (quoted in Levy).

The director’s humanist interpretation of Babel seems like an attempt to avoid discussing the inevitable political implications in his film (to be discussed in the next section).

The characters in Babel initially seem flat, and the jumps from one locality and situation to another do not allow us to adequately develop an emotional connection to any of them. But, as the film develops, there are various attempts to embellish the characters with an illusory three-dimensionality. Characters become more ‘‘real’’ – and thus more relatable – through their personal strife. Obviously, the individual performances must have appealed to the U.S. public because two of the actresses, Adrianna Barraza (Amelia) and Rinko Kikuchi (Chieko), were nominated for the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Academy Award.

Nevertheless, some critics interpret the characters’ individual suffering as a transparent attempt to make them appear three dimensional.[9] Furthermore, suffering is deceptively individualized to detract from the fact that female bodies are actually the ones that become sites of melodramatic suffering. For a film that spends most of its time concentrating on its female characters’ plight, Babel’s female protagonists are not dynamically scripted. Yes, the women do dominate most of the narrative and thus have more on-screen time, but that is mostly because they become passive recipients of male-induced tragedies. Intentionally or not, Babel’s penchant for female victimization exposes an underlying conservatism when it comes to gender roles. Women’s bodies – particularly Amelia and Susan’s – become consumed by suffering. Consequently, these women are presented as (more or less) innocent victims of circumstance. Furthermore, as we later find out, those women are not just victims of fate: they are victims of the consequences of male actions. Amelia risks her life and gets deported out of fear of disobeying her boss’ (Richard) orders, while Susan gets shot by Yussef who got the rifle from his father (who in turn bought the rifle from a man who got it as a gift from Chieko’s father). Female victimization is thus something that occurs in all locales of the film and as a thematic motif, it provides an underlying sense of narrative cohesion.

Female objectification is another motif that is both thematically and stylistically endorsed in Babel. The more attractive (by Hollywood standards) women become objects of the camera’s gaze, but their own gaze is rarely mediated. This mostly applies to Susan, who represents a Western ideal of beauty. Susan is dressed in a white blouse that makes her fair complexion and blonde hair stand out even more in the Moroccan setting. The camera frequently lingers on Blanchett’s face but does not penetrate the surface. We see her looking outside the bus window, for instance, but we do not see what she is looking at because her gaze remains largely unmediated to the viewer. The shots of the Moroccan desert and people as seen from inside the bus are primarily there to set the scene, so that Susan’s point of view represents a tourist’s detached point of view, or even a typical U.S. tourist’s superficial look at other cultures. 

Chieko is the culmination of female objectification and victimization in the film. Chieko is fetishized as an exotic ideal of sexuality, and strangely complements the visual embodiment of female purity/ victimization that Susan arguably represents. Chieko is presented as a typical shõjo (= young girl). In Japan, the figure of the shõjo has come to be regarded as a site of consumption and materialism. Chieko’s cluttered room acts as a manifestation of the shõjo’s consumerist drive. Outside Japan, the shõjo is – among other things – a symbol of taboo sexuality, primarily due to the shõjo’s young age.[10] The film plays on that idea of the hypersexualized shõjo by filming Chieko from angles that tease by revealing intimate parts of her body. The film seems to justify Chieko’s visual objectification as a reflection of her personality. In other words, her objectification is made to appear self-provoked because she actually pursues this to-be-looked-at-ness (to use Laura Mulvey’s term). Chieko’s longing for a male touch is presented in conjunction with the absence of patriarchal control in her household  but also implies that she is secretly desiring that lost patriarchal control. Chieko’s obsession with attracting male attention is used as an excuse for the film’s objectification of her body. The fragmentary shots of her body parts (e.g. her buttocks and vagina) signify a loss of control on Chieko’s part as to how her body is mediated to others (both the viewers and the men she is surrounded by). Chieko measures her self-worth according to the male attention she attracts, and she is obsessed with how the male gaze(s) sees her. For example, when some boys fail to take her seriously, she complains to her girl friend that ‘‘they look at us like we’re monsters.’’

Ironically, Chieko’s story reaches closure when she emotionally reaches out to her father after being rejected by a series of emotionally unavailable men. The reaching out is not only emotional, but also – and most importantly – physical. In this final scene, a naked girl is embraced by her father as they stand on their apartment's balcony against a nighttime Tokyo view. Chieko’s pale naked body renders her vulnerable and creates a stark contrast next to her father’s dark suit. Her father visually covers up part of her nakedness by hugging her, which makes the underlying sexual connotations all the more disturbing. The narrative's forced closure conveyed by the camera zooming out to reveal an establishing shot of Tokyo undermines the fact that our last impression of Chieko consisted of seeing her glistening body.

Incestuous desire is – to some extent – latent in the closing scene of Babel, but it is more manifest in the Moroccan segment of the story. In the first part of the film, Zohra (Wahiba Sahmi), the young sister of Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), the boy who shot Susan with the rifle, undresses while her brother spies on her through a hole in her room’s wall. Zohra is well aware of Yussef peeping; she welcomes his gaze and suggestively smiles at him. Yussef and a viewer’s scopophilic pleasure gets interrupted when the older brother, Ahmed, scolds Yussef. Ahmed implicitly reminds Yussef (and the viewer) that his desire is taboo, but Yussef does not appear to be embarrassed by his sexual attraction towards his sister. In fact, he masturbates shortly after he sees his sister naked.

Since the very beginning of the film, Ahmed is made to feel less competent than his younger brother because Yussef is better at shooting. Ahmed tries in vain to impress his father, and is envious of his brother’s dexterity when handling the rifle. The father’s approval is tied to each boy’s sense of masculinity, and the rifle is the measurement of that masculinity. Ahmed’s inability to shoot a target is, in his eyes, a form of castration: it deprives him of his self-worth and makes him even more eager to impress his father. Conversely, Yussef effortlessly embodies the hypermasculine qualities Ahmed covets. Surprisingly, the majority of critics have not commented on the incestuous desires manifest in the film, nor have they criticized the controversial images of young Yussef masturbating and proudly holding the rifle.

Despite Babel’s avant-garde exterior, the aforementioned gender portrayals indicate that some aspects of the film must abide by certain conventions in order to compensate for more forward-moving elements such as stylistic and narrative experimentation.

Transnationalism and political implications

With a film title as ambitious as this, Babel’s five languages (English, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese and Japanese sign language )[11] and four ‘‘multicultural’’ settings (San Diego, Morocco, Tokyo and Mexico) do not even begin to encapsulate the diversity that the name of the film lays claim to. The film’s creators rework the myth of Babel as the source of the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity in light of global communication and transnationalism. On the surface, the film acts as a metaphor for transnationalism, defined as ‘‘the global forces that link people or institutions across nations’’ (Ezra & Rowden, 1). The film’s cinematography consciously hints at such an interconnection between the initially fragmented storylines. Babel cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto states that the most challenging part in making the film was combining all the different locations, crews, languages and formats into a single movie. Prieto says that

‘‘it was important that it didn’t feel so different that it looked like different films spliced together. I wanted a different texture and feel for each part, but for them to be part of the same film’’(Kaufman).

For this reason, unifying aesthetic motifs were used visually to ease the transitions from one place to the next. An example of such construction of aesthetic unity is the use of the color red, which is used in all locations in varying shades and intensity.

On a profounder level, however, Babel alludes to the miscommunications that persist despite –and sometimes because of – technological advancements and global networks. The economic foundations of contemporary globalism are presented in the form of monetary exchanges, tourism and labor migration. The exchange of goods and money advances in conjunction with tourism in poor countries. In the film, material exchanges (e.g. the rifle, and even the exchange of family photos) only forge temporary cultural connections. A breakdown in communication may appear to have a domino effect because it permeates all locales in the film, but, in fact, some locales suffer more than others from this kind of disconnect. By the end of the film, characters seem to return to their cultural origins. Richard briefly connects with the medic Anwar when they share pictures of their children, but Richard basically sees Anwar’s friendship as a form of service and thus tries to offer him money in exchange for taking care of his wounded wife. The deportation of Amelia, a Mexican working as a domestic in the U.S., shows how some parts of the world (or, in this case, some ethnicities) do not benefit from global networking as much as others. While Babel ostensibly hints at the economic dynamics of tourism in poor countries and of labor migration, it fails to explore these dynamics. 

The film’s progressive emphasis on multinational identities backfires in the same way as Crash’s depictions of diversity do. In other words, it is hard to see beyond the nationality of the characters. Thus, most Babel reviews in the United States refer to the characters as ‘‘the Mexican nanny,’’ ‘‘the Moroccan father,’’ ‘‘the Japanese girl’’ instead of their scripted names. At the same time, critics persistently refuse to identify Pitt and Blanchett by the names of the characters they play, and refer to the two actors’ performances instead (which might suggest that their star texts make it hard for viewers to see them as characters rather than actors).

In interviews, the director of Babel claims he does not have a specific political agenda, and chooses to emphasize the humanist implications of his work instead:

‘‘for me, the story is about how vulnerable and fragile we are as human beings, and when a link is broken, it's not the link that is rotten but the chain itself’’ (Iñárritu, quoted in Levy).

In another interview, Iñárritu once again insists that the film

‘‘is not about the physical borders, it's not [about] the politics of the government, it's about the politics of the human’’ (quoted in Stratton).[12]  

However, this does not prevent some viewers from interpreting the focus of the globalist drama as

‘‘highly specific, with each case involving wrenching life-and-death situations that on one hand are highly circumstantial and didn't have to happen, but on the other involve socio-political fallout that speaks directly to the current moment’’ (McCarthy).

Another example of a political reading is Tom Charity’s assertion that:

‘‘underneath its ‘We Are the World’ humanism, Babel comes with its own geo-political agenda. It's a critique of isolationism, power and privilege that is most explicit – or at least, assumes the greatest resonance – [in the part where] Western paranoia turns an accident into a full-blown international crisis.’’

Another reviewer, Scott Foundas, sees an even more straight-forward message to the film’s globalized setting, and claims that Iñárritu and Arriaga

‘‘[make the] aggressive suggestion that we Americans and white Europeans are something less than exemplary citizens of the world, particularly in times of crisis.’’

Within the context of the film's narrative, the shooting accident inevitably assumes political motives. A random act of thoughtlessness escalates into rumors of a terrorist conspiracy in the U.S. (and Japanese) media. The U.S. embassy tells Richard on the phone that the incident is ‘‘all over the news, everybody’s paying attention, doing everything they can.’’ While Moroccan authorities speculate that the cause of shooting is an attempted robbery, the Moroccan media still make note of the fact that ‘‘the American government was quick to suggest a terrorist link.’’ Moreover, Susan’s Red Cross helicopter transportation is the climax to the part of the story taking place in Morocco. Susan and her husband’s aerial departure is witnessed by various Moroccan people: we see the local people gathered outside, looking up at the helicopter taking the American couple to the hospital. The U.S. couple not only becomes the center of this Moroccan gathering, but is also at the center of a media frenzy once they reach the hospital. Therefore, even if the film’s discourse does not ultimately favor the ‘‘Western’’ side of the story, the film’s focus suggests that the U.S. couple is the most influential part of the chain of events.

Typically, the discourses underlying postmodern cinema are purposely depoliticized, or refrain from any overt political criticism.[13] In the case of Babel, however, the fact that the shooting incident manages either to affect or visually infiltrate other narrative segments forces us to recognize the centrality of Western identity in the film. Amelia (Adriana Barraza), the Mexican nanny babysitting the U.S. couple’s children back in California, is expected to make the U.S. children her priority at all costs. After his wife’s shooting, her boss tells Amelia: ‘‘This is an emergency, cancel your son’s wedding,’’ implying that his family matters more than hers. Amelia’s attempt to balance work and family obligations gets her deported and nearly killed; this melodramatic twist could be the film’s attempt to convey the absurdity in U.S. behavior and paranoia. Interestingly, whenever he is asked to make a comparison between the events of 9/11 and the function of terrorism in his film, the director refuses to make the focus of his film political. Although he was emotionally affected by the events of 9/11, he repeatedly claims that Babel is primarily about ‘‘the politics of human interaction’’ (Guillen).

Iñárritu’s diplomatic response to political readings of his film is, above all, a clever marketing move, given the fact that the film has been shown in countries with varying political convictions. But does a deliberately depoliticized reading of Babel make the film more transnational in its appeal? In other words, could Babel be seen as a metaphor for a transnational cinema that

‘‘imagines its audiences consisting of viewers who have expectations and types of cinematic literacy that go beyond the desire for and mindlessly appreciative consumption of national narratives that audiences can identify as their ‘own’’’? (Ezra and Rowden’s definition of transnational cinema). 

If the reviews of Babel are any indication, then it is impossible to ignore the specificity of the  national narratives – and therefore our own cultural/ political/ personal bias – in favor of a (surprisingly) homogenizing ‘‘transnationalist’’ response.

In the film’s defense, the filmmaker does make an effort to keep an equal focus on all nationalities. Even the scene distribution in Babel aims to focus evenly (at least visually) on all characters/ settings (the character focus follows this symmetric pattern: Moroccan – Mexican –U.S. – Japanese, and repeats the rotation five times). Despite the film’s longer duration compared to most mainstream films (142 minutes), I think Arriaga and Iñárritu’s attempts at conveying various nationalities are still restricted because of the many layers to the film. The creators’ flair for multiple, convoluted storylines means that some depth has to be sacrificed in other departments of the film, such as characterization.

The fragments that make up Babel are not all equally shallow; this makes me look at the film as more than a ‘‘postmodern’’ accumulation of surfaces because I, as all viewers, am drawn to some parts of it more so than others. In other words, the film does not indiscriminately formulate a pastiche of surfaces. Some parts of the narrative and some characters stand out more than others, although of course this has a lot to do with individuas' film reception (perhaps more so than authorial intention). The Moroccan and Japanese settings, for instance, seem generic compared to the deeper depiction of Iñárritu’s home country of Mexico; similarly, the Moroccan characters are (arguably) more flat than more impressionable characters such as Amelia and Chieko. 

The scenes taking place in Mexico are possibly the densest parts of the film. Of course, I might not have thought so if I was not aware of the director’s (Mexican) nationality. Despite their complexity, the scenes taking place in Mexico bear the burden of representation. In other words, the Mexican scenes could be regarded as the director/ writer’s attempt at visibility for a particular ‘‘minority’’ viewpoint.[14] If we are aware that the director is Mexican, then we might interpret the Mexican wedding scene as more culturally authentic/ accurate than other parts of the film. The director’s background is part of that representational burden because he not only has to present a scene in ‘‘Mexico,’’ in a sense he also has to represent (the real) Mexico. In light of this, the wedding scenes have a richer sense of traditionalism and cultural awareness. Comparatively speaking, the scenes in Mexico are much more layered than the scenes taking place in San Diego. This is partly due to the fact that the scenes supposedly taking place in North America were actually shot in Tijuana, Mexico, and, of course, so were the Mexican scenes (Kaufman). In fact, out of the four geographical locations in Babel, the only one not visited by the film crew is San Diego.

The colorful sequences that geographically and culturally represent Mexico are loaded with visual and sensory imagery. The montages convey the director’s familiarity with Mexico, and his attention to detail betrays his cultural bias. In discussing the Mexican part of the film, Iñárritu reveals his personal attachment to this specific storyline when he says that:

‘‘the border issue that I put in this film in the Amelia story, the border of United States and Mexico, which is my country […] is not about the physical space, it's about the idea of who the other are and who I think the other are and why I'm building that barrier within [myself]… the borders that are within ourselves are the most dangerous’’ (Stratton interview). 

Once again, the director chooses to discuss the personal aspect of the story over its political dimension.

Furthermore, the scenes in Mexico – and, consequently, the Mexican characters (notably Amelia and her nephew) – are endowed with hints of profundity, even if that depth is not adequately explored on screen. By this I mean that in the Mexico scenes, more so than in any other part of the film, there are glimpses of other narratives that do not unfold but still indicate that there is more complexity than meets the eye. An example of implicit depth is the montage that covers various fragments from the wedding of Amelia’s son. We not only see people celebrating, dancing, eating, drinking and participating in other festivities, but we catch a glimpse of Amelia letting a man grope her (the widower she was dancing with seconds ago), and then another shot of them kissing. That sexual tension, however, is subdued because those fleeting shots are merely a tiny part in the montage of wedding celebrations. In fact, I hadn’t even processed what those fleeting images meant the first time I saw the film because the fast-paced editing does not allow time for the viewer to take everything in.  When the film returns to the Mexican setting after going back to the other three locations, there is no sign of the man, and the sexual encounter does not seem to have made a lasting impression on Amelia because her only visible concern is the children.

Of course, that is not to say that there aren’t any complicated narrative ellipses in other parts of the film. The enigmatic death of Chieko’s mother and the varying accounts of what happened, the vague reasons behind the friction between Richard and Susan, and the Yussef's fate are just some of the suspended enigmas in the film that are purposely left unexplored. Nonetheless, the film provides inquiring viewers with information that hints at the causes of these suspended mysteries. For example, Richard mentions that he left the family at some point, and the death of the couple’s second son is also mentioned by their daughter – these seem to be adequate (albeit vague) reasons to explain to the viewer the couple’s strained relationship. Also, the letter Chieko hands to the police detective could hold the key to Chieko’s actions. Part of the letter is briefly shown when the detective unfolds it, but the camera does not focus on it, and therefore does not allow us to view it in its entirety. However, this hasn’t stopped some inquiring viewers from trying to figure out what it means.[15] The viewers’ tendency to try to fill in the hermeneutic gaps in Babel (evident in film-related discussions, reviews, and this very essay) reflects a significant part of the film-viewing experience: making meaning. Detecting and deciphering meaning makes the film experience worthwhile, at least for the majority of audiences.

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