The Tower of Babel

The minor terrors of everyday life that infuse the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu — an escaped dog, a hole in the parquet floor, a drink too many — are at first so innocuous that their eventual explosion punches one firmly in the gut.

The moments are brief, fleeting and flickering like a bulb about to burn out, passed over by the eye with nary a second thought. Inevitably, however, they return: whole lives seem built around those first glimpses, whole worlds of interaction where humans, loudly but without understanding, collide and hurt and die.

Iñárritu's most recent film, Babel, is the most far-flung of these (too far-flung, in fact), tied together by the horrifying circumstances of an American couple in Morocco, their nanny and children in Southern California and a girl in Tokyo; 21 Grams, a similar take on a widow, a hit-and-run killer and a heart transplant recipient, is the tightest in construction but the most over-the-top in execution.

His best film is his first, Amores Perros (2000), set in an incongruously chilly Mexico City. Rather than teeming with the crashing, sweaty bodies we've come to expect from Latin America as depicted on film (Fernando Meirelles' City of God comes immediately to mind), the people here are sparse, the skies unendingly gray. The bustle of the city fades. Characters seem rarely to come in contact with others, instead only simulating the quotidian— working as a cashier in a grocery store, for instance — while pursuing, silently, the more devious — bank robbery, illicit affairs, dog fighting. These Janus-like characters, all facade and wary depth, emerge when those minor terrors begin to reveal the disease of their lonely lives, when an infinitesimal event sets in motion something irrevocable.

The multiplicity of narratives, as in Iñárritu's other pictures, suggests our tenuous connections with the world and the people around us; he reminds us that we live in a world where innumerable stories play out simultaneously, stories to which we give no notice until they intersect with our own. He asks us, in a way, to walk down the street and imagine even a sliver of the tale of the next person we pass.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion once wrote, and Iñárritu, even if he has never read her work, abides quite beautifully. The characters in his films construct narratives around the unspeakable, the fateful, the terrifyingly random. They, like us, try to make sense and order from the disparate threads we are given. They, like us, often fail.

Each of the three main characters in Amores Perros — a young man in love with his brother's wife (Gael García Bernal), a successful supermodel (Goya Toldeo), a hired assassin (Emilio Echevarría) — has a plan, a story, thrown into disarray by an accident, by an inability to predict what will come next and how they will react. And then that moment of fate, that brief image from which everything in the film descends, becomes the focus of the story: the narrative shifts to new ground, unfamiliar ground. Like a flower petal or piece of wood seen under a microscope, the intense focus on these tiny disruptions of life distorts them. An escaped dog becomes a reason to flee; a hole in the floor signifies a crumbling relationship and broken body; the death of a companion segues into the painful birth of a new man.

In short, Iñárritu seems to ask: What becomes of us when we are left bereft of our plans? When our story is hijacked by fate, how do we tell a new one? The answer, though bleak, is in an old man's room, in the flaking, peeling paint — when we are stripped of everything we become like the paint, cracked and dry and decrepit and sad. But then he awakens: he trims his beard; he cuts his toenails; he puts on the bent and broken glasses of someone left with almost nothing. He returns to a home of sorts, pockets filled with dirty money, and leaves a message for a stranger from his past.

He rids himself of that burdensome old narrative of revolution and murder, of life's troubles writ large, and begins a whole new story. He re-enters the world, cautiously, slowly; he reconstitutes his tale with a fresh beginning and, we imagine, a future populace of new characters, walking across the charred earth under an almost imperceptibly brighter sky.

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