Babel: A larger-than-life film
Few times in film history have reality and fiction collided as they do in BABEL, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s (“Amores Perros,” ’21 Grams”) update of the biblical myth that claims to be the origin of mankind’s lack of communication.
Shot over the course of a year in three continents and involving an ensemble multilingual cast lead by Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Koji Yakusho as well as a high percentage of non-professional actors from Morocco, Mexico and Japan, the film came to mean for all the people involved a physical and psycological journey very close to that portrayed by its characters. While the film tells the stories of people set adrift by cultural and idiomatic frontiers, both the director and his crew dealt with these same challenges months before the shooting started.
Gonzalez Inarritu a self-claimed “director in exile,” has said that, first and foremost, the idea of BABEL is the result of having left his country and of his living-on-the-go current state of mind. “BABEL no longer answered the question, “Where am I from?” but rather, “Where am I heading?” Such was the personal approach to the question, that BABEL was in its origins a self-financed project.
In a departure from his two previous films, both shot in countries, settings and shooting conditions somehow manageable and familiar to the director, BABEL meant for Inarritu not only the deep involvement in a more complicated, emotional and intellectual journey, but a means of exploring other cultures and ways of seeing the world with a more complex film production. As is usually the case, the clashing of so many cultural points of view in both the ideological and in the physical ended up transforming not only his personal perspective on things but the creative process itself.
One of the director’s main objectives was to avoid using an outsider point of view in telling the stories of characters born and raised in the cities portrayed. In order to achieve that, he followed what he calls an “observe and absorb” process. Aside from carefully watching the everyday habits of the locals, he chose to work with foreign
non-professional actors who provided him with insight on cultural subtleties. In the ultimate challenge of telling the story from the characters and not the director’s frame of mind, he let his first-time actors develop their own reactions to situations that might have a different meaning in every country. Many of them had never seen a film camera before.
Through the process of rehearsing highly emotional scenes in never spoken before languages and of finding the perfect shooting spot in places that ranged from a never ending desert to one of the most crowded cities in the world, BABEL came to prove its own plot thesis both in fiction and in real life: “Barriers and frontiers are not always physical and visible,” says Inarritu “The lines are within us and prejudice exists within our cultural frames. In that same sense they can also be brought down.” Such is the ordeal that the characters in the stories portrayed in Babel were meant to go through, and such was the life-changing experience of bringing those stories to the screen.