Friday, January 12, 2007

Reflections on Babel and the “Borders Within”

While in Sydney this past weekend I saw Babel, the latest film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the creative team behind 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

Recently nominated for several Golden Globes, including Best Drama, Babel is an impressive, ambitious, and challenging film.

Associated Press describes Babel as “a four-pronged narrative that includes an American married couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) vacationing in Morocco when a stray bullet strikes; a Mexican nanny and her nephew (Adriana Barraza and Gael Garcia Bernal) who encounter difficulty crossing the U.S. border; a Moroccan goat-herding family forever altered by the purchase of a rifle; and a deaf and mute Japanese girl struggling with her disconnection to the world.”

Not surprisingly, “The separation of people by language, politics and misunderstanding is the larger theme of Babel,” reports the news agency.

It all sounds potentially confusing and a bit of a downer. Yet David Stratton, co-host of
At the Movies, reports that “gradually the [film’s] connections are resolved” and that overall, the film is “well-acted . . . suspenseful [and] remarkable.”

A “Relentless Fatalism”

Yet Babel is not without its critics. Ramón Valle, for instance,
notes that as with Iñárritu and Arriaga’s previous films, a “relentless fatalism” reduces the characters of Babel “to pawns who can’t comprehend, much less combat, forces beyond their power. . . . Too often, the more they try to change the circumstances, the graver the situation becomes. Action proves futile.”

Valle also observes that, “This fatalism has for centuries imbued Latin American culture and ideology, and we see it with particular virulence in the Mexican sequences [of Babel]. The individual struggles against one’s fate may give the character a certain tragic heroism, but with the cosmic deck so thoroughly stacked against him or her, any possibility of a better outcome, a better world, improved conditions, is, at best, remote, at worst, a pathetic illusion. . . . Such pathos, saturated with fatalism, may inform poignant arias, heart-wrenching scenes, but it does not inspire us to individual or collective action with any hope of success or change. There are no tears of triumph in Iñárritu and Arriaga’s films, only the sadness of survivors mourning the loss of the less lucky, those whose lives are overwhelmed by fate.”

“Iñárritu and Arriaga,” says Valle, “wail that the world seems not to be listening to the cries of its dispossessed, oppressed or accidental victims. Their films, they insist, are a response to these unanswered cries for help and understanding or, ideally, compassion. However, the deafness of the authorities is indifference by design, cruelty by habit.”

The notion of humanity being the “prisoner of fate,” reflects, according to Valle, “the philosophy of well-meaning individuals who look at humanity from on high while missing out on that same humanity’s daily, heroic struggles to change its conditions.”

To illustrate his point, Valle observes that, “Both [Iñárritu and Arriaga] are Mexican nationals. Their talents are undeniable, but somehow the heroic struggles of the Mexican working-class during the past few months, in particular in the state of Oaxaca, have been anything but passive and seem to have passed them by. And if Iñárritu and Arriaga are expecting the Mexican authorities to listen, good luck.”

The Borders Within

In a recent
BBC interview, Iñárritu (pictured below) said that he “wanted to make a film about prejudice without being prejudiced.”

“Language barriers,” he said, “can be very easy to surmount. The problem is one of preconceptions from one to another. This film is about not what separates us but what brings us together – what makes us the same people living together in the world.”

In an interview with Gaynor Flynn of Filmink magazine, Iñárritu observed that, “This film couldn’t have happened without me being in self exile.”

Elaborating, he noted that, “I left [Mexico] in 2001 and it’s a very complicated thing when you’re a third world citizen living in a first world country. It’s difficult to communicate and you confront prejudices every day. I’ve been travelling a lot over the last six years and that triggered in me a lot of things that I needed to question. I wanted to somehow film that whole moral imposition that I feel in everyday life.”

At the Movies’ review of Babel included interviews with Iñárritu, and one of the film’s Mexican stars, Gael Garcia Bernal.

“At very intimate levels,” Iñárritu told At the Movies’ David Stratton, “every citizen of the world today is affected by the misinterpretation that is happening in countries, religions, and races. [In Babel] I start with an intimate thing [and move to] a global scale.

“The border issue I put into the film [and which takes place at] the border of the United States and Mexico . . . is not about the physical space but about the idea of who ‘the others’ are, who I think ‘the others’ are, and why I build these barriers within myself. The borders that are within ourselves are the most dangerous; that’s what I want to make clear in this film.”

Actor Gael Garcia Bernal (pictured below) similarly observed that, “People now are communicating even less with each other. And if they ever do it’s full of prejudice and a blindness of fear of the other . . . [The U.S. mainstream media outlets] talk about the issue of immigration as if there is an attempt to destroy their country [when] it’s actually making it richer – not only economically but culturally. It’s giving it life – a life that it needs.”

According to Bernal, Babel “deals with issues of lack of communication and how, at the end of the day, one thing that we do can effect someone on the other side of the world; how interdependent we are of each other; and how we better start listening to each other before the tower starts to crumble.”

Explaining to Filmink magazine’s Gaynor Flynn the title of his film, Iñárritu says, “It’s from the Bible and the idea is that many people are speaking but nobody is communicating. But language is not what’s keeping us apart – it’s ideas, and preconceptions that lead to fear. That’s what the film’s trying to talk about.”

Two Models of Christianity: Boundary and Horizon

The comments of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Gael Garci Bernal remind me of the Catholic Church, and how in matters relating to sexual identity and orientation, many Catholics are simply not listening to “the other,” namely gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people, but are instead opting for crude and erroneous stereotypes and/or clinging to teachings that have not been nourished by the insights and experiences of many GLBT people attuned to God in their lives and relationships.

I read statements such as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ latest “guidelines” for ministry to “persons with same-sex inclinations” and peruse various “hardline” conservative Catholic blogsites, and am left wondering: How do these people live with the dehumanizing barriers they’ve allowed to be constructed within themselves and the Church? How do such barriers possibly reflect the life and message of Jesus, who constantly sought to break down barriers between people?

Of course, institutional Catholicism, indeed institutional Christendom, has always tended to embrace what theologian Diarmuid Ó Murchú terms the “boundary model.” In such a model, theological, ethical, spiritual, and ritual boundaries are set “within which orthodoxy prevails and outside of which one is considered to be unfaithful on a spectrum stretching from the ‘dubious’ to ‘outright heresy’.”

Yet I’ve come to agree with Ó Murchú when he says, “The great danger I see here is that in setting boundaries around the religious system, we also hem in the living Spirit and, theologically, we pursue questions which have more to do with our needs than an understanding of God’s life in us or for us.”

According to Ó Murchú and others, “The boundary model of traditional and mainstream Christianity has [not only] outlived its usefulness, [but it] may be fundamentally alien to the vision and mission of our Christian faith.”

As an alternative to the boundary model, Ó Murchú offers the “horizon model,” one which, he says “embodies in a more integrated way the aspirations of many spiritual seekers of our time.”

The horizon model, says Ó Murchú, is “an open system, focusing on Christ the primordial embodiment of God’s New Reign in creation which continues to grow and develop until the end of time.”

“Our starting point,” says Ó Murchú, “is what the gospels call the New Reign of God [or Basileia], the trans-cultural faith community for which Jesus is the first and exemplary disciple. This is, above all else, a community of mission, catapulting its members into the heart of creation, where all creatures (and not just humans) co-create with God until the Kingdom comes in its fullness.”

Ó Murchú is adamant that for Christians, “the church is called to be the exemplary community that celebrates both the present reality and future challenge of the Basileia.” It’s a task, Ó Murchú observes, “which the church today seems unable to assume or facilitate” – no doubt due, in part, to all those internal (perhaps even subconscious) barriers that Babel director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu reminds us are so very “dangerous.”

Genuine spiritual seekers are very much attuned to the various barriers of institutional religion – barriers which attempt to limit the flow of the spirit and restrict the rich spiritual life for which we all long. Accordingly, says Ó Murchú, contemporary spiritual seekers “don’t look to the church for enlightenment or guidance,” and “many who do, become even more confused and disillusioned.”

“Today,” says Ó Murchú, “the spiritual ferment outside the church, at the cutting edge of the Basileia horizon, is what touches the heart and fires the imagination of the spiritual seeker, and not the staid ritualism and empty rhetoric [babel!] of an outdated and increasingly irrelevant institution.”

The Arrogance of the Tower

I think of the image of the Tower of Babel – a tower which in its construction obviously had to be set within clear boundaries. I recall the story of this tower as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, and wonder: Was God’s anger brought about by humanity’s arrogance in thinking that a mere man-made structure could reach heaven and thus be on the same level as God? Or is God’s anger more to do with our short-sightedness in thinking God is distant and thus not seeking and seeing God within and all around us?

Perhaps there’s a connection. Perhaps such short-sightedness stems from a certain arrogance on the part of humanity. The history of Christendom, after all, is full of stories of the building of elaborate, richly-decorated cathedrals while in their shadow God lies hungry and cold in the guise of a begger.

It’s an arrogance and short-sightedness which plagues us still. How else can one explain the spirit-denying pontifications of the Vatican which rise up and masquerade as God’s absolute and final word on matters of homosexuality? Has a single one of these elaborate pontifications, resplendent as they are in the flowery language of “natural law” and “the divine will of God,” ever been written in consultation with, for instance, a gay couple whose relationship is experienced and expressed both sexually and sacramentally?

The Collins Australian Dictionary defines “babel” as “a scene of noise and confusion”. In offering pronouncements on human sexuality which fail to reflect people’s actual experience of sexuality –gay or straight – and the ways in which such experience nourish people’s relationships with self, God, and others, the Vatican sounds not only confused about the ways by which God reveals Godself in and through human life, but also arrogant and foolish.

The natural consequence of such arrogance and foolishness – their rejection by people of compassion and consciousness – can actually be perceived by some poor souls as a form of divine punishment or abandonment. Thus the non-reception of the Vatican’s pontifications on sexual matters by the vast majority of Catholics is viewed by some conservative Catholics who doggedly hold fast to such pontifications, as a sign that we need to build that tower higher and those barriers thicker! Only then will we reach God and in so doing convince ‘the others’ of their folly!

A Leap of Faith, A Journey to the Horizon

Perhaps in matters of human sexuality it’s time we abandon our barricaded tower of orthodoxy and our narrow vision of finding God, and thus “all the answers,” solely at this tower’s remote, man-made apex.

Perhaps in matters of human sexuality it’s time we take a leap of faith and together make a pilgrimage to the horizon. Of course, at the more “grassroots” level of the Church such a pilgrimage is well underway. And from experience, I have witnessed and learned how such a journey breaks down barriers, encourages open and honest communication, and reveals the loving, guiding, transforming presence of God in the lives and relationships of each one of us.

To paraphrase Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu: “This journey is not about what separates us but what brings us together – what makes us the same people living together in the Church and the world.”

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