Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu could have done almost anything he liked after Amores Perros. The director's astounding debut film - three stories set in Mexico City, all connected by one car crash - saw the former DJ and commercials director hailed as a major talent. He could probably have gone to Hollywood there and then. But instead of being sucked into America's mainstream movie-making machinery, he took Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro to Memphis and immersed them in 21 Grams, an unremittingly grim story about grief, religious fundamentalism and redemption.
21 Grams felt like an anguished howl of pain. "It was very personal to me," Inarritu says when we meet in London. "I lost a kid with my wife and that was one of the things I wanted to explore." The film, like Amores Perros, was informed by this 43-year-old father of two's belief that "to arrive at the light you have to go through a very painful or dark process". Life is a "list of losses", he elaborates. "When you are born, you lose the security in your mother's womb. You lose your friends. You lose your hair. You lose your father. You lose your job. You lose your health. You know that you will lose your life. I think it's how you confront those losses that matters." That sounds awfully pessimistic, I say. "Oscar Wilde said a pessimist was an optimist well informed," he laughs. "I think that's how I feel."
This is nowhere more evident than in the director's new film. Babel concludes what is now an informal trilogy - though only in the sense that the films all concern parents and children, he says. Global rather than local, like Amores Perros, or spiritual like 21 Grams, Babel, Inarritu says, grew out of his need to talk about the world as he has experienced it since moving to LA - four days before 9/11 - and during his subsequent travels. The film is dark stuff, predictably, with only the slightest hint of light piercing the existential gloom. But it was something he felt compelled to make, despite the various appeals made to his vanity, his ego, his wallet and his creativity by screenplays coming from Hollywood. "If I had chosen them I knew it would be the wrong decision," he says. "For me, making a film is such a difficult thing, that it's better for me if it is a personal thing."I have the great privilege to be in a world where I can express my own fears, my own anxieties, and whatever moves me in my work. So, my life and my films are not very separated. I cannot hire my life to be telling something that I don't care about. It was a moral kind of decision to make this film. I needed to vomit a lot of things out that really bother me because of opening the newspapers, or that I experienced by myself, things that make me angry."
The coincidence of 9/11 with Inarritu's move to LA plunged the film-maker into depression. It's not easy being Mexican in the States at the best of times, but Inarritu also has a vaguely Middle Eastern appearance. In the atmosphere of paranoia and "aggravated nationalism" that followed the attacks, he found himself being regarded as "suspicious" and "dangerous". It was "a difficult and intense phase", he says. "Living as an immigrant, as a Mexican, in the US creates a lot of questions, a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings, a lot of anxiety."
He thought about the archetypes and the stereotypes and the preconceptions that we all have about one another, which trap us and alienate us, and prevent proper communication. He thought about how these are exploited by politicians to justify policy, and perpetuated through the media. "It's so sad when you see Fox News in the United States, because they completely spoil and poison any culture or any news," he says. "They ban images. They haven't shown one single coffin or one single video of what is going on in Iraq right now."
Travelling abroad, he says, "you can see these borders getting worse and worse and worse, between human beings, between cultures, between nations, between neighbourhoods. That's something I wanted to talk about."
He started work on Babel with Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón's scriptwriter/director brother, Carlos, and then called in Guillermo Arriaga (who wrote Amores Perros and 21 Grams) when Cuarón switched to another project. Arriaga came up with five stories, two of which - about Moroccan children, and an American couple - survived. Inarritu himself supplied stories about a Mexican nanny looking after North American siblings, because he wanted to address the subject of immigration and the tensions along the US-Mexico border, and about a deaf-mute Japanese girl trying to cope with loneliness, her mother's suicide and her burgeoning sexuality.
When he started the multi-lingual film, which takes us from California to the Moroccan desert, to Mexico and Japan, Inarritu thought he was making something about the differences between people. Gradually, though, he discovered he was actually making a film about the things which, he believes, make us all the same. A much more positive outlook, you might think. But it really depends on whether you are someone who sees the cup as half empty or half full.
In the film, an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), grieving over the death of a child, are struck by further tragedy when the wife is accidentally shot on a tourist bus in Morocco. As she fights for her life in a poor village, the US government treats the shooting as a terrorist attack, turning it into an international incident. Meanwhile, the couple's children in America are fighting for their own lives in the desert after being taken to a wedding in Mexico by their nanny, only to find themselves caught up in a border incident as they try to re-enter the US. Later, the gun used in the shooting is traced back to the father of the girl in Tokyo, who gifted it to a guide after a hunting trip. Each story ends with a kind of moment of grace as people connect, or reconnect, through touch.
"I think that as human beings what makes us happy is very different and depends on races and cultures. But what makes us sad and miserable is exactly what we share," says Inarritu. "That thing is basically the impossibility of love: the impossibility to be touched by love, the impossibility to touch with love and express it. In this film those connections between characters are about that."
The paradox is that politics and prejudice, religion and culture, drive us apart. The proposed US-Mexico border wall is a tragic example of this, he says. It won't stop people dreaming of a better life. "It will just put more people in danger and they will have to risk their lives a little harder. There will be more security that will threaten the lives of all these humble people. They will not be stopped by a fence."
I ask Inarritu whether putting two blonde American kids in the same situation as desperate Mexican migrants was his way of trying to make bigots empathise with people they normally just regard as negative statistics. "It's a paradox," he says. "It seems that maybe I want to just get closer to people who agree to build that wall to make them feel in a human perspective, not in news and magazine terms, so that they can just think about that. One thousand people die in those conditions, including kids. And if they get closer to that story in a human way, and can just see that angle, maybe they can change a little bit their minds. Or they can think about whether a fence is really the answer to these problems. I think these American kids, just by the juxtaposition of images, will make them feel more the impact in it, and see that kids are kids, no matter whether they are blonde or Mexican. It's kids, you know? So, yeah, I think that can be effective."
Babel earned Inarritu the best director award at Cannes in May. It performed spectacularly when it opened in limited release in America, but rather more sluggishly nationwide. Critically, the film has been furiously debated. Some reviewers have called it a masterpiece, others a pretentious folly, deep and meaningful or well-made, but possibly signifying nothing. Some have dubbed it this year's Crash - which, depending on your view of that film, is either a good or bad thing.
I liked Paul Haggis's multi-Oscar winner, but Babel is an altogether subtler, more ambitious film, in which Inarritu draws on all his considerable resources as a film-maker to empathetically reveal not only the barriers that keep us apart, but also the ties that bind us together as a species. In a world that is in danger of collapsing around us like the biblical Tower of Babel, this surely cannot be a bad thing.
"If you see a film about human beings and not about Moroccans or Mexicans or Americans, if you see human beings and you forget about the languages and you just see a film, then I feel I succeeded," says Inarritu.
© Stephen Applebaum, 2006