With Babel shaping up to be this year's Crash at the Oscars, after acing the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture/Drama, there's something my inner common sensical American mom (as opposed to the film critic) must address. The global thriller's extreme tension hinges on characters making radically dumb decisions, one after the next, in America and abroad. The suspense builds and we watch, intently, on the edge of our seats, like motorists crawling past an auto wreck.
Slapping our foreheads, we ask: How stupid can these people be? (Spoiler alert: Pretty stupid.)
Exhibit A: Brad Pitt in Morocco. Upscale ugly American Richard is having problems with wife Susan. They've lost a child and, subsequently, lost each other in a churning miasma of grief, guilt and blame. So far, so good, or bad but in a good way. But one look at Cate Blanchett's soignée germ phobic traveler, rubbing her hands with Purel, Lady Macbeth-style, and it's clear: if Richard guy really wanted to save his shipwrecked marriage, he'd have taken Susan to a five-star hotel in Venice, not a bus-trip through dusty, earth-toned Morocco! What the hell was he thinking? Possibly, that there wouldn't have been a movie if he'd known his wife just the tiniest bit, and taken her to a Ritz-Carlton virtually anywhere on the globe, even Third World danger zones.
Okay, so Richard makes the wrong vacation plans and launches a tragedy string suitable for chaos theory. Onward to...
Exhibit B: Abdulla (Mustapha Rachidi) in Morocco. The Muslim father wants to protect his backward rural goat-herding, mountain-dwelling clan from encroaching dangers. He trades pelts for a rifle, then leaves the dangerous weapon with his tween Cain and Abel. Ok: cue the sensible mother. Guns don't kill people; people kill people. Ask any NRA rep, you don't have a weapon in the house, much less a loaded hunting rifle, without adequate training. On the simplest level, it's called child-proofing, or responsible parenting. I wouldn't trust myself with an electric drill, much less leave it with my squabbling seven- and eleven-year-olds and ask them to put up a bookshelf with only a copy of Martha Stewart Living for instruction! We don't even leave carving knives out in the kitchen. Why should Abdulla be forgiven for buying a rifle and not getting any training in firearm safety? How is that protecting his exposed kin? OK, so maybe there isn't a local chapter of the NRA, or a community-sponsored shooting range, but how could he possibly leave the rifle with his two sons, who subsequently take potshots at the tourist bus carrying Richard and Susan, and score first blood?
If the answer there is that I'm a middle-class, college-educated American woman judging backward Third World residents, isn't that also implying that I'm not buying into the condescending attitude Babel assumes toward this father and his sons? It insists that they don't know any better than to pick up a rifle as if it were a stick, then point and shoot and spread the tragedy of ignorance.
Richard and Susan lost a child; now Abdulla loses one. We are all one in our grief - got it. And, by extension, we are unified in our flawed choices. Still, it rankles. Abdulla behaved irresponsibly; why shouldn't he know any better, because he's a Third Worlder?
Exhibit C: Amelia (Adrianna Barraza) in Southern California. The beloved, hard-working illegal Mexican nanny is depicted as reliable - Robert and Susan have left their surviving two children entirely in her care while they bugger off to Morocco. But any reasonable caregiver without her green card would know not to take the boss's blonde kids across the border into Mexico - and return with her drunken, pistol-packing nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal). Her son's wedding may prompt the excursion, but Amelia's behavior is beyond the risk-set of the average domestic worker, ever nervous about the INS. It's just plain-ass dumb behavior, the kind that in this movie necessarily spirals into tragedy. Even without crossing the border, allowing Bernal's hopped-up vaquero drive under the influence with the kids in the backseat is criminal neglect.
It's criminal neglect -- unless you're backward enough to believe that working-class Mexicans (as opposed to sophisticated Mexican-born writer-director teams like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga) think with their hearts first, heads second. Wait: isn't that condescending, too?
After I first watched Babel at the Toronto Film Festival last September, I shared a cab with a Mexican TV exec. He politely informed me, when I raised my reservations with the film's behavior loop, that I was trapped in my well-educated American bubble of preconceptions
I later discovered, over breakfast at the Hilton, that he traveled without photos of his daughter back in Mexico City; he had been warned that, should he be kidnapped off the streets that would put her in danger as well. Clearly, we shared a love of strawberries in winter served at the hotel buffet, but not the same frame of reference. He lived in a walled world of privilege and looked out from within its barricades at chaos; I read Real Simple and tried to organize the world accordingly.
Seeing Babel, then as now, I understand its urgent message that we are all connected (wait! Isn't that a telephone ad?). And, okay, we are all connected in tragedy, grief and forgiveness. But I balk at the apparent fallacy that we are all bound in the stupid mistakes of other mortals. There is nothing wrong with applying common sense - not taking one's up-tight wife into contested territory, not leaving a firearm with two untrained sons torn by sibling rivalry, not crossing the Mexican border without a green card unless a life-or-death necessity.
Hey, it's not the stuff of high tragedy, but when I pick up my kids after school, I make sure they wear their seatbelts -- every single time! People would consider me unfit if I didn't, not a part of a screenwriter's conspiracy of stupid human tricks spiraling into global tragedy and redemption.
As Dorothy Parker reputedly said when she first saw the Alps: "They're beautiful, but they're dumb."