Casa de Los Babys is the name of a hotel in an unidentified South American country. And it is tempting to say that John Sayles’ latest movie of the same name is the story of the six white American women who stay there, fulfilling the residency requirement by adopting local babies.
But what then of the quietly lyrical scenes that follow three local boys as they clean windshields for change and sniff cans of gold spray paint, watching the night sky turn into rays of blurred stars above the beach?ÊOr the awkward conversation between a 15-year-old girl and the boy who does not know that she is pregnant with his child? These scenes are told entirely in Spanish (with subtitles), so for the English speaker they seem to hover on the film’s periphery, creating the kind of quilt-like societal portrait for which Sayles is famous.
The English-speaking scenes fail to deliver the same power. When the six women come together, the conversation seems oddly forced. And the way they gossip about each other the minute one has left the circle seems a contrived effort on Sayles’ part to communicate with the audience.
Each of the six represents a different kind of American woman. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is the quintessential pushy American whose ominously bad behavior turns out to be a symptom of something seriously wrong. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the single New Yorker who has decided that she is sick of men and wants a daughter. Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian who tries her best never to say anything bad about anyone else. Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the youngest and richest of the group, whose husband works an unidentified job in Washington, D.C. Skipper (Daryl Hannah), a Viking super-athlete from Colorado, swims, sprints barefoot down the beach and adheres to a strict health-food diet. Finally, Eileen (Susan Lynch) is an Irishwoman who has moved to Boston and is skimping for money because her husband is out of work. The roster is reminiscent of a classic war movie, only instead of young would-be soldiers, Sayles gives us young and middle-aged women unable to give birth.
The scenes that center around the women get most of their strength from reminding us that these women — who seem so carefree and lucky in comparison to poor local residents — are in fact in South America because they too have suffered. In one marvelous scene, Skipper tells Jennifer about the three children she has lost to birth defects while giving Jennifer a massage. With stunning stoicism, she recounts one child’s damaged lung and the other’s damaged heart, and the way they managed to survive for two days and then one week (“they were amazing”).
We know we should not be surprised, but as we watch her tell the stories, we cannot believe that a body in such perfect health could be unable to produce the kind of healthy child women around the world take for granted. No one ever articulates the paradox of Skipper’s quiet tragedy — and the audience can only wish Sayles had created each of the other characters with as much careful subtlety. We understand Jennifer when she looks at Skipper and asks, “How can you go on?” And we understand Skipper when she does not answer.
Indeed, the most successful aspect of the movie is the question of communication and understanding. In the middle of the movie, for instance, a number of scenes are inexplicably devoid of subtitles. Though annoying for non-Spanish speakers, Sayles may have chose not to attach subtitles to force the audience to identify with the alienation and confusion felt by the six women. The absence of subtitles in these scenes seems to inform the movie’s title, which misspells the English word “babies” in recognition of its appropriation into a foreign language.
In the same way, the scene that serves as the movie’s emotional climax speaks fundamentally to the language barrier. Eileen is sitting at the desk in her hotel room when she is interrupted by one of the maids, a girl whose story has already fluttered across many half-explained shots. Eileen knows that the girl cannot really understand her, but she talks anyway about the fantasy she has of taking her daughter out to play on a snowy day.
When she finishes speaking, the girl sits down and tells her in Spanish about the daughter she has “up north.” She tells her how often she thinks of her and how she hopes that her daughter has an adopted mother like Eileen. Eileen’s speech is a little long and sentimental, but the maid’s performance is so wonderful and true that we feel her frustration when Eileen explains she did not understand a word.
As the movie cuts back again and again to the nursery in which brown babies cry and sleep and hear the nurse’s whispered Spanish lullabies, it asks us how much language and culture matter. Leslie jokes that the children they adopt will speak English with a Spanish accent (“it’s genetic”). A communist working in the hotel speaks passionately of cultural imperialism and the commodification of South American babies. A teenager who works all day making the beds of women who come to adopt babies would not understand her long-lost daughter’s declaration of love for her mother. And Sayles, ever the philosopher and never the dogmatist, asks us what all of it really means. He does not answer.