Alejandro González Iñ árritu has a lot of stories to tell. He packs several of them into each film that he makes. In three critically acclaimed features—Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and the latest, Babel—he and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga have told at least nine, depending on how you unravel his complex tapestries of narrative.
All three films bear the distinct style and perspective of storytellers who are unafraid to portray characters in states of depravity, desperation, and despair. There is a burdensome weight to these pictures, giving us the sense that the world is getting very dark indeed. Hope is not lost, but it only glimmers in the occasional traces of compassion and care.
Born in Mexico City in 1963, Iñ árritu has had quite a colorful journey already. He began his creative career as a radio DJ, then began composing music for films. Studying film in the U.S., he eventually crafted Amores Perros, the feature film that would earn him raves and awards around the world, including a Best Foreign Film nomination at the Oscars, and catapult him into the top tier of directors working today. 21 Grams earned nominations for Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts.
And now, Babel may earn him his first Best Picture nomination. Babel features unforgettable performances by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, even as it introduces American audiences to a diverse, international cast. Filmed in Mexico, the U.S., Morocco, and Japan, it carries us around the globe into various crises of violence, loneliness, and communication breakdown. It's almost overwhelming, but we come away thinking about the power of compassion and the need to slow down and pay attention to our neighbors and their needs.
Christianity Today Movies visited Iñ árritu during a publicity stop in Seattle to talk with him about his art, the challenges of filming such an international project, and his curious preoccupation with the importance of family.
Films about foreign cultures with wide release in America often feel like postcards—simplistic, often with insulting stereotypes. But Babel feels authentic. What was your approach to capturing each distinct culture?
Alejandro Iñ árritu: I spent one year [trying] to really assimilate, absorb, and be very respectful with every culture. I tried to not judge them, or portray them as stereotypes or cartoonish—you know, the misbehaving Muslims, or the lazy Mexicans, or the selfish Americans. Compassion is the word for this film.
You take us into intimate contact with these characters, so we get a visceral grasp of their broken hearts. And while they're from different cultures, your storytelling suggests there is a commonality to their experience. Is that what you intended?
Iñ árritu: I started out making a film about what really separates us. But during the process I was transformed—and my films are extensions of myself. I ended up doing a film about what unites us.
I want the audiences to forget that they are watching a foreign-language film, about a foreign culture, and realize that they are just watching human beings. I want Brad Pitt to [blend in] with humanity, so he's not Brad Pitt anymore. It's not about celebrities. It's not about movement and explosions. I want the people to really feel the weight of the dead. I want the people to feel the weight of pain.
These many characters never get together on screen; they're not completely connected. But what connects them is not happiness but pain, and the process that they go through to … break down walls and connect to the ones they need and love. These people don't have the ability to express love, or to receive love.