Babel: Listen and Try to Understand

Two solid conclusions that come out of modern mathematics and physics is that all matter is connected and that once two particles come into contact with one another, they are forever connected. Another conclusion, from chaos theory, is that events that seem completely unrelated and inconsequential can be connected in a profound way. The most common metaphor given is the butterfly flapping its wings in Central Park. The idea is that a butterfly flapping its wings in one spot on the planet can cause a hurricane or tsunami on the other side of the world. It goes back to all things being connected and all actions having a reaction.

What if physics only has it half right? What if, as Buddhists and Brahmans have always believed, that this applies to the spiritual world as well? What if all things are connected, not through matter, but through spirit? What if our actions can have profound effects, on people we’ve never even met, on the other side of the world?

I had a chance to see Babel over the holiday weekend. The movie is by the same director that gave us 21 Grams, Alejandro González Iñárritu. A great quote from Beethoven applies to Iñárritu, “It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.” Well, I was hypnotized by the music, the story, and the cinematography. These elements added depth to the already layered, complex story about the interconnectedness and misunderstanding of a multicultural world. There are many political and social commentaries within the movie but I will ignore what I saw as a more superficial layer of the movie and focus on what I saw as the main theme buried under all these layers.

The term Babel comes from Genesis 11:1 in the Bible. This is where we get the modern word, babble, meaning noise or confused speech. The chapter is about men building a town to reach heaven:

Come, let us go down Lord confuse their language so they will not understand each other. So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.

Of all the destructive acts a person can commit, there seems to be something particularly unnatural about suicide – as if suicide creates a small tear in the fabric of spirit and like a vacuum consumes everything around it. In Babel, it is suicide that begins a chain of events that link together four families from very different parts of the world: Japan, Morocco, America, and Mexico. In Babel, the suicide of Yasujiro’s wife creates such a tear – many would call this karma – except in this case particular individuals and their families become accountable for an event by a person they’ve never met in a country they’ve never been to. In short, karma takes the following path

Yasujiro’s wife commits suicide with his hunting rifle
which devastates Yasujiro’s daughter (Chieko) and causes
Yasujiro to give his rifle to a Moroccan man
who sells the rifle to the Moroccan father of two boys (Yussef and Ahmed) who
shoot at a bus and hit an American woman (Susan) with her husband (Richard) who
left their children with their Mexican maid (Amelia) who
take the children with her nephew (Santiago) to Amelia’s son’s wedding
where the maid leaves the children in the desert

Another subtle theme running through the story is that children are always experiencing the consequences of adult’s decisions. The boys were too young to be allowed to have a rifle, the maid should never have taken the children to Mexico, the mother should never have committed suicide, and the American couple should have never left their children with a maid while traveling to Africa.

In karma, something has to break the cycle. The only truly selfless person in the story is the Moroccan tour guide (Anwar) who helps the American, Susan – who has been shot – by taking her to his village. The whole village helps to keep the woman alive while help arrives from the US embassy. Finally, as an American helicopter arrives to airlift Susan to the hospital, Richard offers Anwar money for his help saving his wife’s life. Anwar refuses and only gives only a hint of a smile that he was happy to help keep this woman alive. For me, the movie slowed down to almost a pause as he declined this gesture of thanks. The story could be divided into before this event and after. Anwar broke the chain of events by doing something truly selfless to counter the truly selfish act of the suicide.

In a story that could have ended in disaster for all involved, this one act of kindness breaks the cycle. Unfortunately, before the cycle is broken one of the Moroccan boys (Yussef) is shot and killed, Amelia is deported, and Santiago is probably dead. However, after the cycle is broken, Chieko does not throw herself off of the high-rise balcony, Susan and Richard’s children do not die in the desert, Amelia does not die of dehydration, Ahmed saves his father by turning himself in, and Susan lives. Had Anwar accepted the money I believe they would all have died and the suicide of Chieko would have perpetuated the karmic chain of events. I’m still left wondering what was written in the letter Chieko gave to the detective.

Sometimes it takes a selfless act to reset the delicate balance of life. Sometimes our actions effect people we will never meet in places we will never go. To break the cycle we don’t have to save the world we only have to be saved ourselves. Listen and try to understand what is going on around you.

12 comments On Babel: Listen and Try to Understand

  • My name is Cheng Cheng,a student of XiaMen University,China,majoring in chemistry,interesting in the same area as you.
    I hope we can share ideas in the future study.You can visite my blog at

    Best Wishes!

  • Very good my friend. I wonder what was in that letter myself. Was it the truth she could not say but only write? hmmmm….

  • Matthew, first let me thank you for developing this website several years ago and allowing it to bloom and blossom.

    I saw Babel and marveled again at the power of Iñárritu’s films.

    Like you, I thought the centering theme might be from the story in Genesis. I was struck by the arrogance of man, attempting to build a town to reach heaven, as the concentration of sky scrapers in that Japanese city. And if you consider that time is process rather than sequential, man is still attempting to build town(s) to reach heaven.

    My sense of the movie’s denouement was when the American woman finally forgave her husband, and he forgave her for the (crib) death of their baby. It seemed that only then, tensions unwound and the chain of events came together with an outcome that was less tragic than it could have been without the forgiveness.

    Thanks again Matthew for such a wonderful site.

  • Hi GreyLion,

    I hadn’t considered forgiveness as the turning point. That’s really interesting. That would certainly fit in with old testament v. new testament idea. Jesus’s message was all about forgiveness. Hmm. Okay, great, now I have to go see the movie again 😉

    Thanks for the compliments about the site. I appreciate you stopping by and reading my sometimes incoherent rants.

  • hola oye hoy vi la pelicula creo algunas cosas de ella de las que tu dices en tu pagina pero desde mi punto de vista en donde te refieres a esto “In a story that could have ended in disaster for all involved, this one act of kindness breaks the cycle. Unfortunately, before the cycle is broken one of the Moroccan boys (Yussef) is shot and killed, Amelia is deported, and Santiago is probably dead” si recuerdas la pelicula ,todo lo que paso en mexico y la historia de que amelia va a mexico y se van con ella los chicos,en tu comentario pones que desafortunadamente antes de que se rompiera la cadena de actos y acontecimientos ella fue deportada y santiago puede que muriera ,esto no es correcto ,recurdas la llamada que richard hace desde el hospital para decir a amelia que se quede un dia mas? eso pasa despues de que anwar no acepta el dinero pues por el accidente en marruecos es que amelia se ha llevado a los chicos a mexico por que por ello la pareja de americanos se demorara,asi que anwar aceptara el dinero o no , no tiene nada que ver con los echos pues estos sigue pasando pues en la pelicula amelia se va a mexico despues de que ha pasado eso ,asi que no es antes ,es despues. interesante tus demas comenatarios

  • Jimenez –

    Great! Now, I’m going to have to wait till this movie comes out on DVD to reanalyze the chronology. Thanks. If I get a chance to the movie again in theater, I’ll take notes this time. 😉

  • Hi I noticed you got a couple of things wrong –

    The child in Morocco who was shot and probably killed was Ahmed and the one who turned himself in was Yussef.

    Also don’t you think turning your self in to try and save your father amd brother is a selfless act too? I say this because it happens earlier in the film than the helicopter coming and thus before the tour guide rejecting the money.

    I agree with your views generally though, kudos.

  • Movie-goer,

    I think your missing the point of karma. In a sense it is a cumulative. The selfless acts together balanced the weight of the initial act. Fate as a perception of karma perscribes to a whole different set of principles in regards to our next life and not just the life we are leading.

  • Hi, I really liked what you have written, I have never seen the film from that point of view before. I am having a class called culture and communication at school and we are analysing this movie. I just had a little question for you, what can you say about the globalisation in Babel?



  • Andrea –

    Now that’s a complicated question. I’m not really sure. I tend to see the philosophical in the movie. If there is a message about globalization it is that what we do effects people, plants, animals around the world … though most of us will never even see the effect. In most cases, the cause can be seen in modern industrialized countries and the effect everywhere else. We are insulated from the effect … for now.

  • I just saw this movie again on HBO. I wonder, how do we know the hunting rifle was used in the suicide of the Japanese wife? Would the husband then take the rifle on a hunting trip, use it to hunt, then give it away?
    And why would the daughter tell the police that her mother jumped to her death? Is she delusional or in denial about her mother’s suicide? Does this hint that she thinks her father was involved in her mother’s death, and she’s trying to protect him from this new police inquiry about the rifle?

  • Yes, what is nagging me is the case of the conflicting suicide tales.

    Also, I wonder what the Japanese teen wrote in that final letter…

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