After Santiago recklessly drives through the barricades to try to escape the scrutiny of the border officials, a car chase ensues in which all we see are the headlights of the runaway vehicle and the flashing lights of the police in the dark night.
The dark car chase contrasts with the hot California sun that overexposes Amelia in the next scenes. The sun blinds her and we consequently only see her as unfit for the border in much the same way that Santiago was blinded by the border officials’ flashlights.
The richness of the colors in these shots deceptively combine the beauty of the landscape with the strife and ugliness of Amelia’s situation and treatment.
The scene with Chieko in the Japanese club exemplifies how the camera work frequently makes the audience feel like an invisible character who is part of the group. This sense is destroyed by the division between the audience and Amelia created by the border official’s shoulder in previous stills, indicating that Amelia’s connection to the audience is abandoned once she is labeled an illegal alien who made foolish decisions.
News coverage seen on screens throughout the world connect the storylines superficially. Though this image comes at the end of the film, it links the Japanese police officer who has been assigned to ascertain how Chieko’s father’s rifle ended up in Morocco with media coverage of the incident. Throughout the film, the audience has seen and heard similar news reports, with the film’s characters most often ignoring them.
While the gun serves as the pragmatic connection among the storylines—as well as the object that impels the crisis—recall that the director emphasized the universal suffering depicted in the film. Amelia’s travails in particular represent that suffering. Following the director’s logic, she is linked to the other female characters in the film because of how she suffers on screen. Remarkably, the most prominent victims in the film are women who are vulnerable and suffer when framed according to their nationality by external entities that focus on the global context of the plot’s overarching crisis. The young Moroccan boys are also victims, but the film blames their irresponsible use of the gun for the crisis. The converse of the vulnerable females, the film portrays the boys’ decision to test their aim and the rifle’s range as a test of their masculinity. By using female victimization as an affective link among the storylines and contrasting that link with the gun’s logistical connections, the film symbolically explores the consequences of the divergent treatment of culture and commodities in the global era.
Amelia’s transformation from capable caretaker to illegal alien is indicative of the counterproductivity of discrimination according to nationality in the global era, especially because of the way that kind of discrimination is specifically overcome for commodities by free trade agreements. The film’s cinematic illustration of her transformation shows the barriers put in place that obfuscate her qualities as the kind woman the rest of the film established. Her suffering is palpable onscreen, but it is important to note that Amelia is not the only woman victimized in the film; other key female characters are deleteriously affected by being reduced to a female body with a national label. Because of the coordinated symbolism of cultural influence characterized as feminine in political rhetoric, the film’s pattern of female suffering potently comments on the systematic treatment of culture — and women — in the increasingly globally connected world. From Babel’s narrative logic, we see that those connections are not necessarily controlled by the females victimized; rather, their situations are made worse by the national labels externally imposed upon them.
In particular, the way Amelia and Susan’s respective trajectories are filmed and communicated show a pattern of female victimization related to national framing. Chieko, the Japanese teenager, is also the site of suffering, but her obliviousness to the international crisis and the way she is pulled into it brings us to the same point about the negative consequences of the way the storylines are interconnected on political lines. If we keep in mind the filmmakers’ emphasis on universal suffering, it is logical that we see characters suffer, but the film’s focus on female bodies as vulnerable sites indicates the perpetuation of traditional characterizations of women and culture. For Marina Hassapopoulou, in Babel,
Even though the film devotes much of its screen time and narrative to the plights of its female protagonists, “that is mostly because they become passive recipients of male-induced tragedies.” For Hassapopoulou,
I go further to suggest the symbolic implications of the male actions that victimize the women—and the way their suffering is exacerbated by the political labels placed upon them. The film dramatizes these implications in such a way that it is hard to tell the filmmakers’ intentions and political stance. It is possible that they are conservative in their understanding of gender stereotypes, or perhaps they depict the unjust reality in order to critique it. Regardless of their intention, their use of such a narrative vocabulary in a commercial film with global range speaks volumes about the landscape in which it was created.
The treatment of Amelia is particularly illustrative of the film’s focus on female suffering. Though Amelia is ostensibly the victim of circumstance — her employers’ absence combined with her nephew’s anxiety-produced rashness — she is ultimately blamed for her actions. The cinematography distances the audience from her, even though it encourages empathy for her losses. Specifically, the way her trajectory is filmed matches the limitations placed on her natural characteristics once her nationality comes to the fore. It is late at night when Amelia’s nephew recklessly drives through the barricades at the border crossing, so the screen is dark, with the only light coming from the cars’ headlights as it speeds through the pitch black landscape, with the flashing lights of the border officials in pursuit.
In contrast to the dark screen with little light, the next sequence overexposes Amelia and the children in the hot California sun. The sequence is filled with innumerable long shots of the children and Amelia wandering in the desert. The shots are stunning, with brilliant colors and a sense of how beautiful the landscape can be when observed from the perspective González Iñárritu and the audience enjoy. The sky dominates the screen with its beautiful blue, but it is balanced by the rich gold hue of the sand. Complementing the other lush colors, the dress Amelia wore to celebrate her son’s wedding is a deep red. The red starkly contrasts with the natural colors of the landscape, and as the sequence continues it becomes more and more tattered. Eventually, the camera starts to focus on Amelia’s ripped nylons and her dirty dress shoes, which are completely inadequate for hiking around in the desert. Despite the way the border geography abuses Amelia and the children, the camera still communicates its awesome brilliance, downplaying the characters’ agony.
Minimizing Amelia’s prior competence, once the border officials find her, the camera emphasizes the ugly consequences of her overexposure. She is overexposed by the sun as well as by the revelation that she was working without legal papers. When she is taken and questioned by U.S. border officials, the camera relentlessly focuses on her sunburned face, wind-chapped lips, and sand-dirtied hair. Just as the border official does not care about her lived experience, about what predicaments led her to be abandoned in the desert, caring only about her legal relation to the United States, the camera decontextualizes her and focuses only on her bodily circumstance. The camera literally and figuratively takes the position of the border official. In this sequence, the screen is mostly taken up by Amelia’s face, but occasionally it shows the cheek of the border official questioning her, signifying that the camera is behind his back, looking over his shoulder. That the camera so willingly takes this perspective shows the film’s propensity to side with the officials, to blame the poor, underprivileged for their rash decisions. While the camera shows an insensitivity to Amelia’s former characterization, the distance it is creating between the viewer and the character indicates that the way she is officially labeled is counterintuitive to the kind woman the rest of the film shows her to be. That the camera is mediated by the border official’s harsh treatment shows the dominance of the national label at this point — and illegality — placed upon Amelia — as a victimized female body.
The separation between the camera and the character is especially noticeable because it starkly contrasts with the position the camera takes in the majority of the film. Often, the viewer has direct access to the main characters through frequent close-ups. Shaw notes the camera removes “any sense of distance” between the viewer and the characters to the degree that that the viewer becomes an “invisible member of the group”:
For Shaw, this camera technique encourages the “viewer to care about all the characters and empathise with their suffering” (25). While it encourages the viewer to empathize with the characters’ suffering, it also gives a privileged position to the viewer, allowing her to think that she can relate to everything the character is going through. Additionally, when the close access to the character is removed, as in the case of the shots of Amelia’s over-exposed body being mediated by the border official, we see that the frames placed upon the suffering bodies externally prevent us from empathizing with their plights. Even if González Iñárritu wants the film to be about universal suffering, the pragmatic aspects of the storyline belie the political implications of what causes the female bodies to suffer.
Perhaps the suffering female body that spends most time on screen is that of Susan Jones. After she is shot, which occurs relatively early on in the film, Susan’s body is often screened in tortured positions with blood everywhere and agony apparent on her face. The extent of Susan’s pain is filmed with just the kind of close-ups that Shaw argues gives the audience a privileged position and generate empathy between the characters and viewer. While these images are very affective, they are also uncomfortable to watch because of their duration. In fact, reviewers complained that the film is “unrelentingly, unremittingly sad, excruciatingly painful,” especially because Cate Blanchett, who plays Susan,
Other reviewers also complain about the frequent depiction of Blanchett’s tortured body, with one complaining:
The reviewers’ focus on Cate Blanchett playing the woman in agony is compounded by others noticing that though advertising and previews for the film focused on Brad Pitt’s and Blanchett’s participation, these two actors play a comparatively small role in the film given their star notoriety. The suffering the film depicts emphasizes the actors’ bodies and frames them in ways Hollywood stars are not typically treated. In continued contrast to the audience’s expectations for how the Hollywood stars and their U.S. tourist characters are treated, Susan’s suffering is made more interminable by the way her body is labeled according to her national citizenship.
Once she sustains the shot wound, Susan is simply a woman in need of medical care, but when the governments get involved, she becomes a U.S. citizen hit by a bullet in the foreign country of Morocco, and it is that identification that makes her the unsuspecting victim of a terrorist attack. Her female body is victimized and the fact that she is an U.S. citizen in an Arab country post-9/11 results in diplomatic posturing. Governmental involvement only complicates getting aid for Susan. A U.S. government official tells Richard over the phone that they (we assume he means US diplomats) are doing everything they can, but that the incident “is all over the news,” insinuating that because of the media attention, securing appropriate aid for the bleeding woman cannot be done quickly because of its political implications. Richard does not care whether the ambulance is Moroccan or from the United States, but the way the media and the governments label the incident makes that difference insurmountable for the U.S. official.
Because the United States labels the event a terrorist attack, and that information is spread globally through the media, we see how the posturing, labeling, and so-called diplomatic offense of the two governments puts all of the film’s interconnected characters, especially the young Moroccan boys who have now been labeled terrorists, at risk. As Hassopopoulou notes,
Despite the personal melodrama, the vocabulary the film uses to connect the characters and communicate the intensification of the event indicates its attitude about the political logic behind it. Placing the responsibility on the media and government standoff is the critique the film offers of globalization: though there are benefits to increased global interconnections, the way that officials’ involvement negatively impacts marginalized people around the world who can too easily be labeled as terrorists, vulnerable, symbolic victims, and illegal aliens.
Through screens and radios transmitting updates about Susan’s status and the attempts to track down her shooter, the film tracks the escalation of the global media interest in the event and of the governmental standoff it causes between U.S. and Moroccan officials. Indeed, throughout the film, the links between the characters around the world are communicated through international media outlets that emphasize the individuals’ nationality and the political implications of the crisis. Not all of the characters know how they fit into the global schema. In fact, several characters only learn of their national framing through media reports that sensationalize the government posturing over the accidental shooting that is labeled as a terrorist attack. The frames politicize the characters in ways that make them not even recognize each other.
The boys first learn of the consequences of the shot they fired at the bus and the U.S. victim when their father returns home late with news that the road on which he normally returns home was blocked off because of a so-called terrorist attack that is garnering international attention. The father does not suspect the boys’ involvement because the possibility of them being involved in an internationally significant event is beyond his purview as a goatherd in rural Morocco. Their inability to think globally, despite their real links to people from other parts of the world, is indicative of the unexpected consequences of globalization, and also marks a critique of the treatment of these underprivileged characters and the depiction of their vulnerability.