Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu speaks reverently about an Argentine theatrical group whose suspended acrobats pluck audience members off the ground and into the air.
“Some people were so mad and so insulted that someone had crossed that line,” the director recalls of the group, De La Guarda. “If you don’t want to participate because you’re too cool or don’t want to deal with emotion, then you are becoming an old man and should surrender.”
Similarly, Inarritu’s gritty, visceral filmmaking has powerfully affected moviegoers since he burst onto the international cinema scene with his 2000 debut, “Amores Perros,” leaving them wide-eyed and punished as they creep out of theaters.
“Art should create catharsis. If art doesn’t move people, then art has failed,” says the long-haired, intense Inarritu. “I want people to feel what I’m trying to say.”
Inarritu’s third and latest film, “Babel,” concludes his trilogy, which also included 2003’s “21 Grams.” Though the films aren’t directly related, each juggles fractured, tragic stories of intersecting lives brought together in the violence of a car crash, a heart transplant or a gun.
‘One of the world’s most gifted filmmakers’The film represents a pinnacle for Inarritu, 43, who has been hailed by New Yorker film critic David Denby as “one of the world’s most gifted filmmakers.” He is also part of a growing Mexican film invasion notable for both its talent and camaraderie — though those bonds have recently begun to fray.
“Babel” is 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.
The separation of people by language, politics and misunderstanding is the larger theme of “Babel.” The movie takes its name from the Tower of Babel, which the Bible describes as having been built by a united humanity to reach heaven. The tower angered God, who scattered mankind across the planet, doomed to forever speak different languages.
“My film is about those border lines that are within ourselves, which are the most dangerous,” Inarritu explains.
Born the youngest of seven in the Mexico City middle class neighborhood of Narvarte, Inarritu — who is called “El Negro” by his friends on account of his dark skin — has made a lifelong pursuit of surpassing constraints.
At age 20, he became a disc jockey at a top Mexico City radio station, playing mainstream music like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. He became enormously popular in part because of the on-air characters he portrayed.
The popularity of his characters led him to a career making television commercials for Mexican TV. Though very successful, Inarritu says he was “getting my soul lost” in advertising.
Exhilarating filmmakingHe and screenwriter/novelist Guillermo Arriaga began planning a feature film of splintered narratives which would eventually be trimmed down for “Amores Perros,” but remain the general concept for the entire trilogy.
“Amores Perros” catapulted much of the cast and crew to stardom. It was Bernal’s first major film; he has since gone on to star in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Bad Education.”
Arriaga wrote both “21 Grams” and “Babel,” as well as Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has shot each of Inarritu’s films (all mostly with realistic hand-held camera work) as well as Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” and Curtis Hanson’s “8 Mile.”
“Amores Perros,” Prieto says, bound them together.
“What came of that movie is a bonus, but it was a very exciting time when we were making it,” Prieto said by phone from Hong Kong, where he is shooting Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution.” “It felt like we were doing something exhilarating.”
The friendship between Inarritu and writer Arriaga, however, is over. Inarritu doesn’t dispute recent reports that portray a feud between the collaborators over authorship of their films — which reportedly culminated in Inarritu preventing Arriaga from attending the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
“I think we both are very sad and disappointed that a couple of newspapers tried to show the end of the relationship and not the nine-year relationship,” says Inarritu, adding that they can now explore themselves artistically in new directions.
Mexican directors in the spotlightBut the Mexican influx to Hollywood isn’t limited to Inarritu collaborators. Directors Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) and Guillermo Del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Mimic”) have also led the movement.
The three filmmakers have forged a well-known friendship and often screen early edits of their films for each other for advice. Cuaron and Del Toro also have films coming out this fall: “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” respectively.
“There’s nothing better than to share a common moment,” says Del Toro, who first met Inarritu after Cuaron passed on an early edit of “Amores Perros.” He called up Inarritu and told him flatly that his film was a masterpiece, but needed to be cut 20 minutes — forging a friendship of candor and support.
“The three of us share a level of passion and a hatred for institutions,” says Del Toro, laughing. “Though we defer on which institutions those are!”
Inarritu now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.
“You become not from here, not from there. You become your own country in a way,” he says of his new home. “I define myself from a vision, from a point of view of life.”
The director is relieved to have completed “Babel,” which he compares to having birthed a four-headed monster. The initial rough cut of the film had to be whittled down from 4 1/2 hours. The production took place across Mexico, California, Tokyo and Morocco — and included many nonprofessional actors who spoke a number of languages.
The irony that those barriers of nationality and language could be crossed for “Babel” isn’t lost on Inarritu. For him, the film’s final shot — where two characters silently comfort each other by that same power of physical touch — is the symbol and hope of “Babel.”