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Author’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the 2006 film Babel.
Last week, Christ and Pop Culture published an excellent article, “Counting Moral Indiscretions Is Not a Movie Review,” which left me considering films that I have watched and found theologically significant and have been dismayed to learn have been labeled morally bankrupt by Christian reviewers.
For instance, the 2006 film Babel combines multiple storylines as well as countries, spanning Morocco, the US, Mexico, and Japan, spiraling out from the inciting incident of an American tourist being shot on holiday in Morocco. The film garnered seven Academy Award nominations and was shortlisted by a number of critics, like Roger Ebert, as one of the best films of 2006.
But for all its poise, Babel is not without objectionable content. A central character in the narrative, Chieko, a Japanese teenager who is both deaf and functionally mute and whose mother recently committed suicide, frequently attempts to compensate for her feeling of isolation and abandonment by attracting men. Rarely is this successful, but we are not spared her attempts. Early in the film, Chieko removes her underwear and then twice lifts her skirt on camera to try and attract the attention of a group of boys sitting at a nearby table in a café.
Near the close of the film, Chieko invites a detective to her apartment under the pretense of revealing information about an ongoing investigation which links the gun used to shoot the American in Morocco with Chieko’s father. When the detective arrives, Chieko has him wait while she attends to something in her father’s study. Chieko walks out a moment later completely naked. She stands in front of the detective, who stares at her in a mix of shock and uncertainty.
Chieko attempts to seduce him, but he resists her patiently. His protest is tender, even gracious, and it is careful and slow how he removes his trench coat and wraps her in it. She cries softly, the sudden weight of her desire to be loved coming to a head, and the detective holds her clothed body tenderly for what feels to the viewer an impossibly long time.
Based on the nudity, some Christian critics of the film dismissed it entirely. PluggedInOnline, the critical arm of Focus on the Family, asserted: “Babel offers no real hope of salvation from the source of our sufferings. I know of only one: the God who offers forgiveness and hope through the sufferings of His Son in the universal language of unconditional love.”
However, the insistence that the film fails to offer hope completely misses an opportunity to read Christian significance in the scene between Chieko and the detective. In the moment that Chieko presents herself naked, she does so out of a complete desire to be loved. The detective recognizes this and does not take advantage of her. Rather, he clothes her with something that was his own to give.
The parallel to Genesis 3 and God’s clothing of Adam and Eve with animal skins comes easily to mind. In the film, it is not hard to see the weary and desperate Chieko as a recently fallen Eve, unable to make sense of the world and desperate to be loved. She is not a sexual nude, much like Rembrandt’s Bathsheba, her face completely void of any desire but for want of attention, kindness, and mercy.
If objectionable content is the hermeneutic for what determines a film’s Christianity, a realistic depiction of the Scripture would never make it past a reviewer for PluggedInOnline.
However, if our hermeneutic is willingness to be surprised where and how we encounter the biblical God, we may be surprised what is in fact quite Christian.