Biutiful is the new movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the peddler of cinema of misery par excellence, a journey to the lowest depths of human suffering and despair, perfect entertainment for the whole family if the family is preparing a ritual mass suicide and needs a final reminding that life is ugly and pointless.
Biutiful takes place in Barcelona but, in spite of a few twilit shots of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, the action takes place far away from the tourist attractions, guiding the viewer through life on the margins of respectable society: illegal immigrants, greedy businessmen, corrupt cops, shady street merchandise peddlers. The life that occurs in back alleys, basements, overcrowded apartments and sweatshops.
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a man involved with illegal immigrants and those exploiting them: he supplies peddlers with bootlegged CDs and poorly-made purses; he gets jobs for illegal immigrants for a fee; he bribes cops for protection. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and Uxbal, who alone takes care of his children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), makes no apologies and seeks no pity.
Uxbal is a man of many faces. His children don’t know of course of his illegal business. Nor do they know that he’s dying from prostate cancer. His domestic life isn’t blissful, but he tries to shield them from the world’s darkness. For that reason he spends his last months of life secretly trying to save money to give them a stable future.
If navigating through Barcelona’s underworld, wrestling wit his impeding death and trying to take care of his children weren’t enough material for a dozen movies, Uxbal also has the power to contact dead spirits, which adds to the protagonist’s downtrodden personality but doesn’t go anywhere else as far as I can see it. The director crammed too many dispersed storylines and the result was a mess, albeit a beautiful mess.
This is an emotional journey with a sense of urgency, in which Uxbal tries to correct everything in his life with little time left. Now a mainstream movie would use this as the springboard for an inspirational story, but in Iñárritu’s world there aren’t easy solutions. Uxbal has no family to rely on. His parents are dead. His brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández), is involved in shady businesses too and sleeps with Uxbal’s separated wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), a bipolar, irresponsible, promiscuous woman. He wants her to become a mother for their children again, but her unstable personality gets in the way. Álvarez delivers a solid performance, managing to effortlessly alternate between pitiful, vulnerable and detached. Although Bardem could carry this movie alone, her presence always enhances their scenes, especially when they’re throwing recriminations at each other.
The movie also takes its time to how show the environment influences Uxbal’s life and determines his options. I get the impression Uxbal has sunk into this life and become numbed to it, living without ambition or purpose. We want his impeding death to wrest him out of his inertia but this isn’t that type of movie. Mainstream cinema loves to promote the elegant lie that everyone is the same, that the world around us is inconsequential to our development, that we aren’t defined by our social, economical, cultural conditions. Biutiful is brutally blunt: if you live in a marginal world, involved in illegal activities, with children to feed and no one to help you, chances are you will die the same way you lived and your children’s future, for all your efforts, will be uncertain. Decisions, bad ones especially, carry moral weight and their repercussions will haunt you like ghosts.
Although I liked Biutiful, I however found it hard to get past its tone. After Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel viewers should already know whether they love or hate Iñárritu. Anyone venturing into one of his films should know about his propensity for depicting hopelessness. Iñárritu is the Cormac McCarthy of cinema. This isn’t a compliment, by the way – I consider McCarthy a mediocre novelist who’s been put on a pedestal by people who’ve mistaken solemnity for quality. What the two have in common is a biblical style, the impression that, like Moses on Mount Sinai, they’re transmitting not truths but The Truth, in a thunderous, preachy tone, to the masses. Without irony or humour they go about explaining to us what the real world really is like.
Now I remain unconverted to this gospel of hopelessness. Biutiful is a fine movie about a dying man’s last days, but it’s as truthful a depiction of Life as Life is Beautiful is of the Holocaust. Oh the director certainly tries, by all means available to cinema, to break down all the barriers between fiction and reality: his repertoire includes showing Bardem urinate blood, Bardem pee in his pants – because Midnight Cowboy didn’t take it as far as it could -, his squalid, moth-ridden apartment, lingering shots of greasy steaks cooking – because in this movie people are real and they eat -, and the two most annoying and overused tropes of the loathsome documental style of filmmaking: the teal and orange cinematography – nothing screams realism like green skin – and its poor sister, the washed out colours; and – what else? – shaky camera – because everyone knows that in the real world people don’t have steady vision but move their eyes as if a pang of sharp pain in their brain is perpetually preventing them from focusing on things.
Biutiful portrays a world cinema seldom acknowledges it exists. Bardem’s masterful performance, one of those rare occasions when an actor becomes the character, makes the journey much easier to cope. He looks so pained, as if all joy has been sucked out of him, that you start worrying if Bardem himself isn’t terminally ill. He smiles so rarely that any display of happiness becomes a special event. Of all the movies released in 2010 no other protagonist affected me so much. For all Iñárritu’s heavy-handed style, there is something truthful about Uxbal, that springs from the depths of our human condition, that speaks about our vulnerability and inability to be prepared for death. These aren’t pop truths to inspire; they’re relentless truths to provoke reflection. But someone should have reminded Iñárritu that just because we’re all going to die, life can sometimes also be beautiful.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernández, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff
Runtime: 147 min