After the so-called ‘death trilogy’, including Babel, Amorres Perros and 21 Grams, and after splitting from his long-term collaborator, Guillermo Arriaga, Alejandro González Inárritu returns with Biutiful, a film which concentrates not on a multitude of character-strands, but focuses on one protagonist, a concept which, as such, is novel to Inárritu’s filmmaking. Nominated for an Academy Award and winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Best Actor, this film is as much Javier Bardem’s as it is Inárritu’s, as one of the best known Mexican directors and Spanish actors come together in this fruitful collaboration.
Biutiful’s main focus lies on its protagonist Uxbal, a street hustler in his forties who’s got his fingers in everything the poverty-stricken suburbs of Barcelona have to offer. Uxbal at once tries to help the numerous immigrants on the fringes of this societal existence, while at the same time gaining his living from them, mostly in taking a considerable cut from their earnings. As such, he runs a gang of Senegalese immigrants selling counterfeit purses on the street; he is involved with two Chinese gangsters providing cheap labour for his crooked brother, who is in the construction business; while still making money out of the bereaved, as he has the rare ‘gift’ of communicating with the dead.
Personal disaster strikes Uxbal in the form of terminal prostate cancer. In learning that he has only two months to live, a run against time begins, as Uxbal needs to attain as much money as possible in order to provide for his two children – his estranged wife, Marambra, with whom he has a destructive love-hate relationship, is unable to take care of them as she suffers from bipolar disorder…
Biutiful is clearly a character-driven piece. As the camera follows an increasingly desperate Uxbal through the less picturesque side of Barcelona as he struggles to remain in control. The element of control plays a main part in the development of the Uxbal character, as the spectator witnesses him taking his own blood in the hospital, as the nurse fails to find a vein. In this Barcelona of lost souls, every character is looking to Uxbal to make things right, in a world in which the mere fact of existence is equalled with misery.
Bardem plays Uxbal with a physicality that reminds of a caged animal as he restlessly roams the streets of what is distinctly designed to be his personal purgatory. At the same time, it takes an actor as versatile as Bardem to infuse this character – a crook in action, a martyr in motive – with a vulnerability which renders Uxbal, if not morally righteous, at least deeply human. This is a character that acts and reacts to his best possible knowledge in a world in which a common principle of morality is denied by the existence of corrupt police and opportunists like Tito, his elder brother.
The misery that is piled upon these characters makes the film exasperating to watch.
The rhythm and structure of the film rises and falls with Uxbal, and like its protagonist, the film’s very existence rests on the element of contrast. At once physically imposing and hunched, Bardem’s Uxbal dominates the frame with an underlying rage that finds no outlet and a sense of exposed corporeal rawness of a body that is failing.
The film, in a way, lives through the same contrast of physical reality and sensitive otherworldliness. Biutiful presents us with a hazy, hectic imagery of an almost grainy quality. The colours are harsh, while washed-out – a cold blue colour-scheme which has nothing in common with the warm, golden, sunny holiday feel of the tourist destination the spectator is used to seeing in films like Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. At the same time, the film presents images of visual poetry which tap into the rich versatility of the magic realism of a Zafón or García Marquez. Like these writers, Inárritu is obsessed with linking the visual metaphor of the sea or the snow with death. The film is strewn with imagery of the sea, be it in paintings on the wall, images of a whale on TV, or the lamp in the children’s room. It is ever-present, like the damp patch on the ceiling in Uxbal’s room mirroring the spreading cancer, always bringing him closer to death. Like the sea that infiltrates the everyday fabric of Uxbal’s life, so does this poetic spirituality infiltrate the film’s texture in a seamless manner. Uxbal’s gift of communicating with the dead is treated with a self-evidence that leaves no room for questioning – the hauntingly beautiful forest scene in which Uxbal meets his dead father and follows him to what we can assume to be the afterlife is as much part of the film’s reality as the scene in which Uxbal needs to wear a diaper.
As such, Biutiful presents images in which beauty and death, the everyday and the spiritual, come together in a way that makes these seemingly disparate elements flow together seamlessly, creating a world in which the definition of reality is expanding like the meaning of the word ‘beautiful’ spelled wrong.
With all its visual and thematic accomplishments, one cannot help but feel that Biutiful attempts too many things at once. While the performances are outstanding without exception, the misery that is piled upon these characters makes the film exasperating to watch. While Inárritu clearly tries to show some light in this darkness, mostly in Uxbal’s love for his children, the outcome of the children staying with Ige, a Senegalese woman he has taken in, until, one can only assume, the money runs out, render this element of hope a lie, and leaving the spectator with a sense of living in a world in which only death provides relief.
The contrast of harsh, cold, gritty images with dream-like, cerebral sequences seamlessly weaves together the two disparate elements of the human condition, as it attempts to convey an individual’s attempt to come to terms with the harsh vicissitudes of living in the world. Even though the notion of all-pervasive misery that dominates the film is, at times, hard to watch, Biutiful manages to evade the stigma of melodrama as it excels in its performances, stunning cinematography and well-developed characters. Biutiful is a sad but beautiful ‘Bildungsroman’, which follows its protagonist on that ultimate journey we all, eventually, have to undertake.
See The Film For Yourself!
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