It is nearly impossible to talk about Babel (2006) without some spoilers, so I will first say this. Like the other two films in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Death Trilogy,” Babel is non-linear story, focusing on several different stories about people connected in ways unknown to them. It takes place in Morocco, the US, Mexico, and Japan. It is about families who are searching for ways to connect, to better understand each other. It is the only movie to legitimately make me cry, in front of another person. I won’t give away too much, but the rest may contain some spoilers, so read at your risk if you haven’t seen it.
When I first watched this movie, the friend I watched it with commented that there was a lot of silence. Indeed, there was. One of the stories is about blind and mute Japanese teenager, so there is a good portion of it where no one is talking. There are also parts in the other stories where Iñárritu does what I’m so fond of him for doing – letting the images on the film do the speaking. It wasn’t until later that I realized how fitting and ironic her statement was: there certainly was a lot of silence in a film about the inability to communicate. This can be taken literally, as in the case with the Japanese teenager, or in the Biblical sense, as in the case between the other stories in which foreign languages play a key role, but the movie takes this a step further and displays how much we struggle to communicate even in shared languages, in our mother tongues, between people we thought we knew.
This is best exemplified in the moment that made me cry. Now, I won’t pretend that I’m super tough and have never cried at a movie, but usually it’s when I’m watching it by myself or when the movie is particularly emotionally manipulative – even I’ll cry when we spend an hour watching someone’s mother die. But this moment was not particularly sad and I was not by myself. In my mind, this moment stretches on forever, so great was its effect on me, but in truth it’s only a few seconds of footage. The backstory: Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are a married couple trying to reconnect on a trip in Morocco. Susan is shot through the window of their tour bus and Richard is frantically trying to find someway to get an ambulance or get help from the American embassy. Finally a helicopter arrives. As they are loading Susan onto the ‘copter, Richard looks back at Anwar, the Moroccan tour guide who has offered them help and shelter during this ordeal. This is after all of their fellow western, English-speaking tour mates, acting in fear, have refused to stay and have convinced their bus driver to leave Richard and Susan behind. Richard looks at Anwar, pulls out his wallet, and offers him the money he has inside. Anwar refuses. Richard insists. Anwar refuses again. Richard puts away his wallet, thanks Anwar, and gets on the plane.
Here’s what gets me. You have this moment where, knowing that Anwar has taken in a couple of strangers and provided food and shelter and the best of his ability to get medical help, knowing American-Middle Eastern relations to be what they are, knowing that his countrymen have abandoned him, you have this moment where Richard knows that there is nothing he can do to thank Anwar for his help. So he offers him money, the only thing he can. And Anwar refuses. He probably could have used that money, but he refuses because money is not the reason he did what he did. He did it because it was the right thing to do. It’s such a small moment, but I have never before seen such a perfect example of humanity, of love, of what “Do unto others…” looks like. It made me cry.
The rest of the movie is great, too, but that’s the moment that has stayed with me all these years. When there is so much evil and betrayal and inhumanity in movies, as they reflect our world, it is heartening to see a moment of pure goodness and know that it, too, has some basis in reality.