The most startling section of the movie is set in Japan. In one striking scene, Chieko—a deaf Japanese teenager played brilliantly by Rinko Kikuchi—stands naked on the balcony of her high-rise apartment in the darkness of the Tokyo night. Will she jump? The image is one of those undreamt-of archetypes that film, when it becomes art, has the power to create.
This scene is only one segment of Chieko's story, which shares the movie with 3 other fragmented, nonchronological narratives (2 set in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the other set in San Diego and Mexico). Indeed, Babel is the third in a trilogy of extraordinary films by Iñárritu, all made in the same style, with intersecting story segments that the viewer must assemble into narratives. If film is now accepted as having a role in psychiatric education, I can think of no better exercise than watching Iñárritu's films and trying with one's students to understand his narratives and make sense of his characters. His is a vision of humanity that will yield to any psychiatric theory, while at its deepest level, like all creative art, it will never completely surrender its meaning.
Each of Babel's stories gives us a glimpse of intriguing characters caught in webs of circumstance that test their humanity. Evil comes into their lives, not from human nature with all its passions, but from the authorities who would control them—the Moroccan police, the US State Department, and American border guards. But Chieko's story is the most brilliantly original—a girl who cannot speak to remind us of the curse of Babel—and Iñárritu surprises us with a police detective's kindness and understanding.
Chieko is playing volleyball when we first see her. She explodes with rage and makes obscene gestures when a referee makes a bad call and her team ends up losing. Her teammates, who share her disability, find Chieko's rage inexplicable, and in sign language (translated in subtitles), they jokingly attribute it to her sexual frustration. Something is seething in Chieko, and it boils over in the course of the day.
At a crowded restaurant, she takes off her underwear to expose herself to boys who flirted with her but turned away after realizing she could not speak. During an appointment with her dentist, she grabs his hand and pushes it between her legs. The dentist, horrified, throws her out of his office. A frantic evening of drugs, alcohol, and the pursuit of a young man in a club ends in frustration because he chooses someone else. She makes her lonely way back to her apartment building through a jungle of neon signs. Once there, she arranges to have a police detective summoned to her apartment on a false pretext, and then presents herself totally naked before him.
The image of Chieko's nakedness is haunting. Yes, it is the anonymous nude body as object for the prurient male gaze. But it is also Chieko herself, revealed in all her desperate vulnerability. The detective seems to understand both meanings, and responds with fatherly compassion by covering and trying to comfort her.
Later, Chieko's father returns and finds his naked daughter on the balcony. Is he afraid she will jump? He moves slowly toward her, reaches out his hand, and she hesitantly takes it—their eyes meet for a moment of unspoken human connection. The camera retreats into the darkness of the Tokyo night. Hope is still possible: Iñárritu has shown us the wordless language of the heart.
In the scenes with Chieko, as in the others in the movie, the psychological motivations of the characters are open-ended and obscure, and much is left to the viewer's imagination. Some will conclude that Chieko has simply reached the age when sexual impulse and frustration is overwhelming. To them, Chieko is a teenager of the 21st century, for whom virginity is an embarrassment. Others will have understood that Chieko feels as if boys her own age are treating her like a monster. Thus, defiantly showing her "hairy monster" is more complicated than being an adolescent girl gone wild.
There is more to consider. In her late-night meeting with the police detective, during which she communicates by writing notes, she informs him that her mother had committed suicide by jumping off the high-rise balcony, and points to the spot where her father would later find her standing. Is she describing her own suicide plan?
In yet another segment, the inspector, as he leaves the building, meets the returning father in the lobby. The father reports that his wife shot herself in the head and that Chieko was the first person to find her. This story might lead one to think that a grieving Chieko is struggling with much more than the rush of adolescent sexual desire. Her rage might be a symptom of her depression, and all her strange behavior might be better understood as desperate attempts to ward off the deadening mindset of helplessness and hopelessness that leads to suicide. A child psychiatrist might go even further wondering whether there is something more ominous and perverse in this relationship between father and daughter that drives Chieko to behave in these sexually aggressive ways, because her behavior is not unlike that of a young child who has been sexually abused. And what connecting theory or myth can be spun that might tie all these family dynamics to the mother's unexplained suicide?
In many films, there are moments in which the viewer will feel the need to fill in a character's motivations. But Babel—particularly the scenes with Chieko—is like a Rorschach test that forces the audience to project its own unconscious into the gaps to create narrative sense. Some of this is intentional on Iñárritu's part. For example, we see the police detective stopping for a drink after he has left the apartment. Clearly his encounter with this naked and vulnerable young woman has moved him deeply, and as he orders his second drink, he remembers that she has given him a note that she asked him not to read until he left. When he takes out the note and reads it, he smiles enigmatically, but we are never told what it says. Iñárritu actually instructed Kikuchi to write anything she thought was appropriate. Whatever the message was—love, apology, please try again—we will never know. Iñárritu wants us to go on imagining, actively engaging with the film and its characters.
The tenuous script of Babel is held together by the technical virtuosity of its editing and cinematography. Babel's cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, experimented with different film stocks and techniques to capture the different locations; for example, the neon lights of nighttime Tokyo were shot in 35 millimeter and the drab mountain wasteland of Morocco was shot in 16 millimeter. Prieto's goal was to give "each story a particular look, without it being too obvious,"1—a task at which he succeeds. The editing that takes us back and forth between segments is inspired; it makes art of the disjunctions. For cineastes, Babel is worth seeing a second time just to appreciate the cinematography and editing.
Babel earned Iñárritu the award for best director at Cannes Film Festival and best picture at the Golden Globes. However, despite 7 nominations, only the musical score won an Academy Award. Babel is one of those films that people either love or hate, and those who hate it have scathing criticism for Iñárritu. At the core of their complaints is the film's nonlinear narrative style and that Iñárritu has used it in all 3 of his films.
Nicknamed "El Negro," Iñárritu began his career as a disc jockey on Mexican radio, worked his way into directing television commercials, and then teamed up with Prieto and writer Guillermo Arriaga to make a film using 10 short stories about social class and subcultures in Mexico City. The short stories were winnowed down to 3, and in the style of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (there is in fact an homage to Tarantino's cult classic in the opening of the film), they are interwoven, connected through the device of a traffic accident. Made on a shoestring budget in Mexico City, Amores Perros was an enormous critical and commercial success that earned Iñárritu an international reputation overnight.
Although it owed its "collage method" to Tarantino, the emotional impact of Amores Perros is quite different. Tarantino's collage is made up of segments inspired by genre films of the past. The effect is an unlikely mixture of surreal violence and cinema nostalgia in which his actors become cartoon characters.
However, if Tarantino is mannerism, Iñárritu is gut-wrenching realism. Iñárritu's collage is put together from pieces of gritty reality, and his actors have the chance of a lifetime to plumb the depths of their characters. Anchored in Mexico City, Amores Perros has a compelling authenticity and brought Hollywood stars to Iñárritu's door. They came, hat in hand, willing to earn far less money than they could command from other filmmakers.
His next film, 21 Grams, featured Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, who both gave superb performances. The film was to be set in Mexico City, but Iñárritu moved it to middle America, a choice that some critics felt resulted in a loss of authenticity. Iñárritu stayed with his formula—interwoven stories told in a nonlinear narrative and held together by a tragic event.
And so, when Babel was released, it was a tempting target for those who had become fed up with Iñárritu and derided his style as a pretentious device on which to foist soap operas on credulous art-house audiences. Time Out London2 summoned up the cruelest gibe: "If misery is your pornography, Babel is your holy grail."
Stendhal said about literature, "A novel is like a bow and the violin that produces the sound is the reader's soul." So, too, with film. And in my viewing of Babel, there are scenes and characters I shall never forget, and within the long passages of misery, there were memorable moments of redemptive human connection. It seems no exaggeration to suggest that this is also one way of describing the journey we take as psychiatrists.
1. Goldman M. Fade to Black: Rodrigo Prieto, Cinematographer. Digital Content Producer.com. October 1, 2006. Available at: http://digitalcontentproducer.com/fieldprod/revfeat/video_fade_black_52/. Accessed May 22, 2007.
2.Calhoun D. Babel. Time Out London. January 17-24, 2007. Available at: http://www.timeout.com/film/83516.html. Accessed May 22, 2007.