Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of the films Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros, is famous for integrating multiple storylines throughout a film to explore the deepest emotional recesses of what it means to be human. In Biutiful, his most recent work, Iñárritu departs from this “points-of-view” device in favor of focusing most of the screen time on principal actor, Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men). It is because of this decision that Biutiful may be Iñárritu’s best work to date, as Bardem’s broad emotional range is a perfect canvas for Iñárritu’s brush.
Biutiful is a relentless downward spiral of one man’s journey to provide for his family and seek forgiveness for his sins. With every new scene, the film somehow becomes bleaker and his situation more desperate. Perhaps the only failing of Biutiful is how rarely we are treated to moments of hope and levity. That shortcoming aside, Iñárritu’s Biutiful (and Bardem’s performance) is a dissertation on the flexibility of morality in the face of one’s mortality. Hit the jump for my review.
Biutiful is a film first and foremost about Uxbal (Bardem), a low-level criminal in Barcelona who is trying to make ends meet to provide for his two children. As the movie progresses, we find that Uxbal has more responsibilities than just Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella). Uxbal employs illegal African immigrants as street vendors selling bootleg items provided by local Chinese sweatshops, both of whom he must protect from the authorities. He also has to deal with the return of his bipolar and abusive ex-wife, Marambra (Marciel Alvarez) and his well-connected, but hard-partying, brother, Tito (Eduard Fernandez). Oh, and did I mention, near the outset of the film, Uxbal is diagnosed with cancer and is given about two months to live? It’s easy to see how this simple concept of familiar struggle quickly becomes awash in complexity and despair.
Aside from the relatively banal problems of running a criminal operation and trying to provide for his family, Uxbal possesses an otherworldly curse as well. In a more subtle version of a Shyamalanian twist, Uxbal can see the spirits of dead people. He uses this ability to his advantage, as the bereaved often pay him to communicate their loved one’s last words and wishes. Iñárritu expresses Uxbal’s ghostly visions by showing the disembodied spirits floating up against the ceiling, as if trapped in transit on their way to the afterlife. These scenes can be terrifying (I literally got the shivers each time, especially in a scene of mass death) and, equally, telling. There is a particular scene at the end of Biutiful that makes the device worthwhile.
A note on the name of the movie and its spelling: there is a scene in which Uxbal’s daughter, Ana, asks him how to spell the word “beautiful.” He replies that it’s spelled like it sounds, so Ana spells it out in Spanish phonetics and we end up with Biutiful. For me, this drew an immediate comparison to The Pursuit of Happyness, in which “happiness” is spelled wrong on the wall outside a daycare. Both films are about fatherhood, a single dad struggling to provide for his kid(s) and overcoming adversity to make sure their children are better off than they were. But that is where the similarities end as The Pursuit of Happyness is as compelling and uplifting as Biutiful is bleak and despairing. At every turn, Uxbal is met with a difficult decision that forces him to choose between taking care of his employees or providing for his children, putting himself last either way. Every time, the decision he makes turns out to be the wrong one until his choices eventually beat him into submission.
Regarding Iñárritu’s narrative style that I mentioned earlier, though Uxbal’s life is the main arc, that is not to say that there are no secondary stories. There are the Senegalese immigrants, principally Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye) and Ige (Diaryatou Daff), who fall under the care of Uxbal and, one of which (Ige) ends up taking care of Uxbal and his children. Then there are the two business partners of Uxbal who run the Chinese sweatshop and just so happen to be homosexual lovers. These supporting characters spin smaller tales of betrayal, guilt and greed, but serve mainly to frame the world that Uxbal has built around himself. As they are slowly removed, that world comes crumbling down.
Iñárritu’s scenes (with much respect due to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto) are witnessed through a voyeuristic lens, like we are seeing the characters through the eyes of a ghost who refuses to leave. It is Bardem who demands the attention and commands each and every scene like the veteran actor that he is. Whether strong-arming an upstart Chinese businessman or weeping as he says goodbye to his daughter one last time, Bardem takes Uxbal’s emotional range through the entire gamut of the human condition. Perhaps his best scenes are with the on-again, off-again mother of his children, Marambra.
In typical Iñárritu fashion, we are introduced to Marambra in one scene that makes her appearance in a second scene much more impactful. When first we meet Marambra, she is half naked, dancing to loud music and smoking a cigarette, teasing an older man who is lying in bed. In that same scene, it’s inferred that this man is Uxbal’s brother. The next time we see Marambra, she’s preparing dinner for her children when Uxbal comes home, unpleasantly surprised to see her. And so, the stage is set for the rocky relationship between Uxbal, Marambra and Tito, and Iñárritu has placed layer upon layer of complexity on each of these characters in just two simple scenes.
Though Uxbal’s relationship with the adults in Biutiful are ultimately disastrous, they do provide a few brighter moments. In one scene, Uxbal, Marambra and the children are at the dinner table eating pints of ice cream that have begun melting due to a broken freezer. While Marambra tells the story of how she and Uxbal met, she and Mateo begin eating the ice cream with their hands. At first, Uxbal reprimands him for being disgusting (an event that occurs often), but then everyone breaks into laughter and they appear, for just a moment, like one big happy family. Unfortunately this is one of the few glimmers of hope in a movie that is oppressively despairing.
As Uxbal struggles to redeem himself before his passing, he unwittingly commits more and more sins. His attempt to protect his street vendors ends up getting them beaten almost to death. His provisions for the Chinese sweatshop workers end with disastrous consequences. His efforts of reconciliation with both Marambra and his brother Tito leave him in sequentially worsening states. In a gesture of closure, Biutiful ends in much the same way it began, though the final scene now comes with a sense of clarity and understanding that mimics the last stages of the journey of life itself.
There are so many themes to be explored in Biutiful that I honestly could write a dissertation on the subject. Control and chaos, love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, what it means to be a parent and what it means to be a child and the gray area between all of them. It’s not always pretty and neat, but neither is life. Biutiful is just that, a beautiful portrait of the messy situations we all find ourselves in from time to time, the things we do to get out of them and the consequences that come along. Biutiful is not perfect, but neither are we.
“Behind Biutiful: Director’s Flip Notes”
During filming, Iñárritu kept a personal video diary of his experiences on set. This 20 minute behind-the-scenes look gives you insight into the mind of this visionary director. Known for bringing in fresh faces and people with no acting experience, Iñárritu also discusses how he came to cast Ige and Ekweme, as well as exploring their tragic real life circumstances that parallel the plot in Biutiful. There is also an interesting piece on the most bizarre scene of the movie, in which Uxbal and Tito “descend into Dante’s Inferno.” The scene occurs at a strip club and is one that you will simply have to see to believe.
A musical montage of cast and crew, including just about everyone…even the caterers.
Interviews with Javier Bardem, Eduard Fernandez (Tito) and Marciel Alvarez (Marambra). Each of them remark on how wonderful it was to work with Iñárritu, which makes me think he was behind the camera for the interviews. (But honestly, if you watch the Director’s Flip Notes, Iñárritu seems like one of the most genuine people in the world.)
Which you can also see here.
“Also from Lionsgate”
Previews for The Conspirator, Rabbit Hole (on DVD/Blu-ray), Winter’s Bone and Everything Must Go.