Reel Review: Babel - Sumit Baudh

Review by Sumit Baudh

Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of Babel

Sexuality is not the main or exclusive theme depicted in the film, but it is fairly significant. The film has won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama. It has also been nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

Three seemingly unconnected sub-plots take place in three different continents, giving insights into the sexuality of a pre-adolescent boy (in Morocco), a deaf and mute late-adolescent girl (in Japan), and a middle aged woman (in Mexico). A collage-like representation, skillfully edited, the film swiftly switches from one sub-plot to the other. It is almost like watching three different films in one.

The boy, in Morocco, is shown as a voyeur stealing glances at his elder sister undressing or bathing. The sister is apparently aware of her brother watching but seems a willing subject of his eroticisation. The brother is later shown pulling his pants down and masturbating against a wall. It invites thought and attention to the sexuality of children, elements of their sexual desires and behaviour; and, the imminent possibility of incest.

The middle aged woman, in Mexico, is on a short visit from the US (where she works as a caretaker for two children). This sub-plot is about her and the children visiting Mexico for a wedding celebration. During the celebration, the woman heads off with another man to a private bedroom. There is little exchange of terms of endearment, or vows of commitment; not even a thought or a concern for possible romance in future; just an urgent sense of desire to make the most of the available opportunity; an act of and for sexual pleasure. 

The depiction of a deaf and mute girl, in Japan, is perhaps most poignant. She has a compelling curiosity and urge to explore and fulfill her sexual desires. At times comical, it is mostly a striking revelation of the different realities we live in. A brash rejection from the boy she desires, evokes confusion and contempt in her; leading to a comical scene in which she mocks and dares the boy in public, perhaps only to vent her anger.

Her constant and unabashed quest to fulfill her desires throws up some insights into the dynamics of disability and sexuality. For example, the scene in a night club captures, exceptionally well, her experience of apparently loud surroundings. A collage of sound of loud music (for most others) and the complete lack of it (for her) illustrates contrasting perceptions of 'reality' as perceived by different people differently. A night club which may be an ideal place for sexual enticement and play for many, hopelessly fails to deliver to the deaf-mute girl.

In another scene, her attempt to seduce a man appears to be crude and desperate. She stands stark naked in front of him, begging for sex. She cannot be faulted for expressing her desire. It is the inability, shock, and discomfort of the subjects of her desire(s) that repeatedly fails her. Her character poses some striking questions: are differently-abled people only fitting subjects for pity, not sexual desire? Does everyone uniformly follow the same (sexual) etiquette? Do all spaces (for instance, for sexual-play) provide equally for everyone?

Other than sexuality, the film skillfully depicts issues around terrorism, transborder labour migration, race relations, and a failing marriage. An enthralling film that keeps you guessing on the edge of your seat all through! 

Sumit Baudh is a non-practicing Solicitor, the Law Society, England & Wales (2004). He is an alumnus of the London School of Economics, London (LLM, 2002) and the National Law School, Bangalore (BA, LLB, 1998). Sumit is currently Senior Programme Associate at the South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality based at TARSHI, New Delhi, and is a keen supporter of the Voices Against 377.