Biutiful Babel: Post-secularist ethics in the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu
The films of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu explore the moral uncertainties and political complexities of everyday life in multicultural societies. His two most recent features, Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010), present contrasting narratives that make explicit, in dramatic and aesthetic terms, the challenges confronting marginalised subjects in a global context marked by social, religious, economic, and geopolitical conflicts. These films appear, moreover, in a cultural-historical moment of intense reflection—not only in Europe but across the globe—concerning the question of postsecularism: the return of religion in public and political spheres, and the challenge to secular modernity presented by religious-cultural diversity. What might film contribute to these philosophical and sociological debates? Babel and Biutiful are two films that stage complex narrative film experiments in thinking through the ethical question of postsecularism. My paper explores Iñárritu’s post-secularist ethics, contrasting the ‘network narrative’ of Babel, which links four stories from disparate yet interconnected parts of the globe, with the more conventional structure of Biutiful, which crystallises the conflicting forces of globalisation in the story of a dying man’s attempts to reconcile faith, family, and survival in the socio-economic underworld of Barcelona. These films’ thoughtful attention to contingency, mortality, bodily vulnerability, and moral ambiguity—not to mention the significance of religiosity in a socio-politically diverse world—challenge many of the assumptions at play in contemporary debates on postsecularism. Iñárritu’s post-secularist cinema raises anew the question of ethics on film: how to provoke an affective experience of ethical engagement without didacticism, abstraction, or moralism?