It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
— George Bernard Shaw
Even more separated are cultures that do not share languages, values, frames of reference, or physical realities. “Babel” weaves stories from Morocco, America, Mexico and Japan, all connected by the thoughtless act of a child, and demonstrates how each culture works against itself to compound the repercussions. It is the third and most powerful of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s trilogy of films in which the action is connected or influenced in invisible ways. Sometimes these are called “hyperlink films.” After “Amores Perros” (2000) and "21 Grams" (2003), it shows his mastery of the form, and it surprises us by offering human insight rather than obligatory tragedy.
Without revealing too much, let me chronologically piece together the stories. A Japanese businessman goes on a hunting trip in Morocco, and tips his guide with a rifle. The guide sells the rifle to a friend, who needs it to kill the jackals attacking his sheep. The friend’s son shoots toward a tourist bus at a great distance. An American tourist is wounded. The tourist’s Mexican nanny, in San Diego, is told to stay with their two children, but doesn’t want to miss her son’s wedding, and takes the children along with her to Mexico. Police enquiries about the Japanese businessman’s rifle lead to consequences for his disturbed daughter.
Yes, but there is so much more to “Babel” than the through-line of the plot. The movie is not, as we might expect, about how each culture wreaks hatred and violence on another, but about how each culture tries to behave well, and is handicapped by misperceptions. “Babel” could have been a routine recital of man’s inhumanity to man, but Inarritu, the writer-director, has something deeper and kinder to say: When we are strangers in a strange land, we can bring trouble upon ourselves and our hosts. Before our latest Mars probe blasted off, it was scrubbed to avoid carrying Earth microbes to the other planet. All of the characters in this film are carriers of cultural microbes.