Language is something that everybody, regardless of country, status, religion, intellect or gender, must deal with on a daily basis. Trying to understand what another person may be saying is particularly difficult without essential tools such as hearing, a mature comprehension and the appreciation of body language. If for various reasons the sender creates ambiguity regarding the message being portrayed, then the receiver’s comprehension ability can be greatly impaired.
The universal trouble with ambiguity in speech is profound, and is depicted phenomenally in Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s, Babel (2006). Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) have travelled together to the land of Morocco for a vacation.
Originating from America, the couple are distinctly alien in a territory where English is used rarely and brokenly. Conversing together in an earlier scene at a rest-stop, they openly exhibit the difficulties encountered in speaking their common tongue of English. There is vagueness in what should be a simple conversation between two experienced English speakers. Susan is clearly depressed about the recent death of their child and neither of them knows how to discuss the hurt from this event. Being in a country that speaks a different language can be daunting and easily gives a sense of isolation, one of the four stages of culture shock. However, not being able to understand another when speaking the same language is exposed as being even more disheartening.
Morocco has a population of about 31.48 million people. It is also the fourth most populous Arabic speaking country. Islam is the dominant religion in this country and it is clear to both Richard and his fellow tourists that their fears of terrorism are not unwarranted when a bullet suddenly enters the bus and strikes Susan in the shoulder. The concordant fear and panic, observed in most disaster films, ensues. This movie is not a typical disaster film, however, the fear and panic are reminiscent of real life horrors.
Understanding Islam through translations and text has been a nightmare for media groups and the public alike, since even before Sept. 11. 2001. For an American national to be shot in a Muslim country is considered the epitome of horror to those on board the bus. Coupled with the feeling of vulnerability and the all-too-real fear of attack by terrorists, justifiable dread falls over the tourists. They quickly arrive at a small village purported to be the home of a doctor. It is here the tourists realise they are isolated not only by their language barriers but also the polarisation of culture. One of the tourists pulls Richard aside as he carries Susan up to see the doctor and explains to him an account of German tourists having their throats slit at just such a town in Egypt. The camera portrays the village and the townspeople as anything but threatening but nevertheless the nervous tourists are anxious to depart.
The tourists fail to comprehend that, even in the heart of an Islamic country, their vision tainted by the fear mongering culture of the media, there are still good people living a good quality life. The tourists act collectively like a person moving frightened in the night, backs into a branch and, thinking it is a weapon, throws their hands straight up and yell, “I surrender”. All the while nothing sinister, whatsoever lurked.
It just so happens that two shepherd brothers testing out their new hunting rifle were the ones who fired the shot. These two boys miscomprehend the power and danger of the rifle and have used it indiscriminately. Depicted as normal boys at home they show that some misunderstanding is not limited to speaking and language. Towards the end it is plain that the world media overdramatised the shooting event, calling it an outrage and vowed to “find whoever was responsible and bring them to justice”. Terrorism was inevitably blamed for two boy’s misconduct with a weapon. For which one is shot by police in a Moroccan “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”.
Japan’s youth population, on the other hand, follows a very different path. With the declination of youth, coupled with a crippling lack of immigration, Japan is riding the thin-edge-of-the-wedge so to speak. A very engaging performance by the deaf Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) displays aspects of seclusion in a country without the will to breed. In marked difference from Richard and Susan, Chieko finds herself isolated in her own city of Tokyo that cannot understand her and one that she can barely explain herself to. Chieko attempts constantly to get in touch with her peers so she can exercise her emotions. Feeling lost, Chieko exposes herself to men in a vain attempt to find worth and meaning in her world of uncertainty. Ear-rupturingly loud discos become silent when the camera shows what she fails to experience. She finds out from a policeman that her father is connected to the shooting in Morocco, and the audience finds out that her mother committed suicide earlier, Chieko desperately tries to find love, or sex, with the cop who exhibits caring and self-control and above all, understanding when he refuses.
Discernment was gained on U.S. immigration policy when the parallel scenes depicting a nanny Amelia (Adrianna Barraza) and two children under her guardianship attempt to cross back into the States after a wedding in Tijuana. In 2005, at least 11 million illegal immigrants resided in the U.S. No movie has ever felt more insightful on just how stretched the patience of the U.S. actually is with illegal immigration, except perhaps The Border or Lone Star. An American border guard stops them at a checkpoint and hesitation runs high as to the decision regarding their re-entry. When the driver panics and speeds from the border the leniency the guard may have been willing to offer, is dashed. Insightful scenes followed regarding the misunderstanding of Mexicans in the
U.S.A. Amelia is forced to travel on foot when their driver kicks her and the children out of the car and leaves. Upon finding the border police again, tired and thirsty, Amelia is hauled away like a ruffian. After spending what is told as a great chunk of her life nannying in America, Amelia is told she is to be sent back to Mexico as an illegal immigrant. Amelia is treated as though she is no worth to America and never has been.
A smart movie with deep issues and fantastic performances by the cast members dictating the complication of ambiguity and their affects on the people in all walks of life. Babel earned Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu the prize for Best Director at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.