Dying of prostate cancer and struggling to put his house in order, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful sees shady Javier Bardem melt away.
Life Is Biutiful by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Barcelona is grim, fetid and dirty. Hardly Biutiful at all in fact. But then it wouldn’t be Alejandro González Iñárritu if he wasn’t exploring life’s dark underbelly somewhere or other. Having supposedly concluded his Death Trilogy with Babel, there’s little in Biutiful‘s trilingual battle for redemption, life and love to herald a new beginning. Except perhaps a break with former writer Guillermo Arriaga and a return to his native tongue. In fact, Babel‘s globetrotting diaspora is echoed in miniature, with Spanish conmen, Senegalese workers and Chinese people-smugglers representing the breadth of marginal experience in the Catalan capital, its tripartite structure even enshrined in the colours of the subtitles. There are distant echoes too of 21 Grams, not only in its storylines of terminal illness, fractious marriages and Christian salvation, but also its visual mysticism with swirls of migrating birds.
If you’re expecting Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona or even a Ventura Pons loveletter to the beloved ciutat you can forget it. There’s no Eixample boulevard or Gaudi park to poke through the seedy miasma of immigrant workshops and moulding flats. Only the Sagrada Familia is revered, towering above the city’s skyline. And it’s a fitting inclusion, for Biutiful is all about family. At its heart, there’s Uxbal, played by a lupine and rapidly disappearing Javier Bardem. The name may sound vaguely Basque, but he’s a nondescript charnego – a non-Catalan who immigrated to Barcelona under Franco’s divide and conquer master plan. In the melting pot city of El Raval and Santa Coloma, he fell in love with, married, impregnated (twice) and left Marambra, an Argentine bipolar working girl who vacillates violently between self-flagellating mum and good-time girl.
And boy, Uxbal’s got it bad. He’s the single father of Ana and Mateo, struggling to keep a roof over their heads while not taking his frustrations out on them, still in love with a manic-depressive but kinda dangerous ex-wife, working as a middleman in a shady, black market sweatshop business which he juggles with a sideline in guiding troubled souls into the afterlife while trying to get his own family affairs in order before dying of prostate cancer in two months’ time. He sure has a lot on his plate, but the drama comes from his contradictions. Protecting Senegalese street hawkers from the police and pressuring kingpin Hai into forking out for heaters for the ice-cold factory the Chinese workers sleep in, Uxbal’s like an underworld union rep. But he’s also accomplice to their exploitation, taking his own cut from their meagre wages, or slipping himself a few notes from their bribe money. And when a faulty heater gases the workers in their sleep, his daily life spirals out of control.
There’s another narrative in this double-helix film though. As his daily life topples off kilter, Uxbal is balancing his soul’s books, coming to terms with his all-too-soon death and trying to figure out who to entrust his children to. For a time, they move back in with Marambra. But when she starts hitting Mateo and leaves him behind on Ana’s birthday getaway to the Pyrenees, Uxbal’s hopes of his children being looked after by their troubled mother fade. Destiny though has sent him Ige, the wife of deported African street dealer Ekweme who moves into his flat. It’s a risk, handing over his children and life savings to a woman he barely knows. And for a moment it hangs precariously in the balance, as Ige heads off with his money, desperate to catch a return flight to Senegal. But as she scours the station departures for trains to the airport, she resolves to stay and honour her promise, steeled perhaps by his faith in her.
Bookending these two strands is Uxbal’s death – a widescreen, towards-the-light vision of a snowy meeting with his father. It all takes place over a dead owl, which apparently spits out a hairball before dying – a strangely icky metaphor for the unburdening Uxbal goes through before giving himself up to death. But apart from this inside-out metamorphosis, this fantasy sequence also introduces the theme of paternity. And Biutiful is literally littered with fathers – the dedication to Iñárritu’s own “oaken” father, the mourning father of three boys killed in an accident, Uxbal’s father who ran off to Mexico and whose body they exhume and finally Uxbal himself, desperate not to leave his kids alone and unprotected, desperate for them not to forget him. But they’re all stand-ins for Iñárritu, and even if Biutiful isn’t at all autobiographical, it still regurgitates the director’s own fears and feelings about fatherhood. All hurled into one poignant kids’ drawing – a bitter nostalgia for the things he’ll never teach them, the adulthoods he’ll never see. But if fathers are martyrs, the mothers in Biutiful fare less well. Either in their absence, or through Iñárritu’s borderline misogynist portrait of Marambra – useless as both madonna and whore. Only Ige restores the balance – a selfless, comforting light in the murk.
Through Rodrigo Prieto’s lens, Biutiful is a crepuscular elegy, hopelessly melancholic – its made-in-China aquarium-lit affair between Hai and Liwei reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together. And in a role halfway between No Country For Old Men and The Sea Inside, Javier Bardem is utterly beguiling as Uxbal, his journey heavenwards narrated on his body as it turns from muscled pink to sinewy grey. With his fate determined by dark moths clustering above his bed or the vision of his spirit nestled in a ceiling nook, Biutiful is a dense thicket of conceits and ideas. Iñárritu may incline towards bombastic, overwrought melodrama, rehashing his favourite themes of death, guilt and estrangement, but the performance he coaxes out of Bardem truly is Biutiful.
Biutiful is released on 28th January 2011 in the UK