Small-time Crime in Barcelona: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful

March 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s likely you haven’t heard about Biutiful, although it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film this year at the Academy Awards, and its lead, Javier Bardem, was nominated for Best Actor. (Bardem already won an Academy Award in 2008 for Best Supporting Actor in No Country for Old Men). It is the fourth film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, after the equally critically acclaimed Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores perros.

In short, the film is an intense human drama focusing on the struggles of a dedicated single father living a life of small-time crime in Barcelona. A deep well of conflicted thoughts and emotions sits below that surface.

This is not an easy film to watch. Instead of simply trying to shock his audience, Iñárritu expresses pain and despair in a beautifully simple and honest way. Some critics dismiss Biutiful for being “too grim.” Granted, much of the film seems empty of hope, but these critics miss the redemption that exists in all of the film’s unlikely relationships. We see Bardem as Uxbal, a worn-out, middle-aged Spanish father trying desperately to raise his children right on his own, look into the lifeless face of a sweet young Chinese immigrant who spoke little Spanish and watched his kids during the day. She had just died because of a mistake he made that was easily preventable. We see Uxbal’s face as he realizes in his moment of intense loss and guilt the love and care he has for this human being. There is pain and there is suffering and there is death, but at least all those projected barriers of age, race, and culture can be broken down. Iñárritu and Bardem express mankind’s ability to love one another in a meaningful way simply and powerfully. That is beautiful filmmaking.

And while that is only one of the many complex statements Iñárritu has woven into his film, Biutiful is an artistic achievement, not a soapbox. It does not give any simple messages and it is somewhat presumptuous to pull any out of it. The best thing to do is to see the film for yourself, because I can only express weakly what it expresses powerfully. If you do go to see it, let me give you some things to look for that make Biutiful a film very much worth watching. If you don’t, these are still good things to look for in any film. (Note: plot spoilers ahead.)

Race relations, as I have already mentioned, play a large role in the film, and Iñárritu has some interesting insights here. Uxbal makes a living off of illegal Chinese and Senegalese immigrants who need a way to avoid the police while they work. The employers pay Uxbal because they get cheap labor. This gives him a constant internal struggle: he has the dishonest occupation of living off these poor people, but he is human and he cares about them.

The title Biutiful refers to the way the English word “beautiful” sounds like it should be spelled in Spanish. Uxbal’s daughter mistakenly spells it this way. The word might not be right, but the meaning is not lost in translation. This concept continues throughout. Three languages are spoken in the film: Spanish, Chinese (in blue subtitles), and Senegalese (in orange subtitles). The subtitle colors match the distinct color palettes used in the homes of each group, creating obvious visual distinctions. Artificial barriers are set up between each group by these colored subtitles, and in scenes of conflict the characters use their different languages to separate themselves from others. But when they show they care for each other, everyone understands what it means. Iñárritu tells us through these images that there is hope if we can recognize each other’s humanity.

Biutiful also explores a topic that few films are able to say much worthwhile about: fatherhood. Uxbal is trying to be a good father, but it’s very hard. His experience runs parallel to that of a Chinese father and a Senegalese father. When each father acts without consideration for his family, the family gets hurt, and each feels that terrible pain himself. All three are far from perfect, maybe even far from good, but all make extreme sacrifices for the sake of their families. Iñárritu gives us the image of Uxbal clutching desperately to his daughter in his decaying apartment. To some, it might seem futile. These fathers can’t save their families forever. But their effort makes all the difference, emotionally speaking. They have a duty to be fathers that their children can respect and remember after they are gone. There is hope in that legacy.

Finally, the topic of death emerges. Biutiful begins and ends with a scene in which Uxbal meets his father in a snowy forest that seems to be some kind of afterlife. (This is a clear instance that illustrates how Iñárritu has connected all these topics in such a way that it is impossible to talk about each separately. It is very impressive.) His father sees something and goes to it. Uxbal follows his father and asks what it is, and we can see from Uxbal’s face that he is more at peace than ever before. The film ends without any hint at an answer to Uxbal’s question. Does Iñárritu believe in some kind of heaven? It’s not clear, and I doubt he wants the audience to know. But Bardem’s performance at the end leaves some glimmer of hope in something.

Throughout the film, Uxbal is dying of cancer (perhaps his inner struggle over his dishonest occupation manifesting itself in his body?), and this looming reality fuels his increasingly desperate desire to make things right in his life. The film’s art direction mirrors Uxbal’s cancer; everything is dark, faded and decaying. The film’s soundtrack follows Uxbal’s physical and emotional state, growing steadily disjointed and electronic.

Also, in one of the most interesting, unique, and haunting aspects of this film, Uxbal is represented realistically as having the ability to see and speak to the souls of those who have died but cannot yet pass on, and he is paid by families to learn the last wishes and confessions of their loved ones. This is where Iñárritu’s directorial work truly shines. His brilliant image of the souls is burned into my mind: they are trapped on the ceiling, looking down in silent confusion and sadness at their lifeless bodies. This is connected to an image of black moths that slowly collect on the ceiling in Uxbal’s bedroom. The night before he dies, as he begins to find hope in some resolution, he looks up and they are gone.

Again, Iñárritu makes us feel the importance of human connection and legacy. Even though Uxbal’s connection to spirits seems to pain him deeply, he continues to seek after it. (The souls on the ceiling are revealed to the camera in quick, frightening glimpses from behind Uxbal. We see his pained face in the foreground and we can tell that he senses their presence but can’t bear to turn around.) He has a subconscious desire to help these tortured souls, because he wants to be remembered well himself. In the end, there is even some hope in finding peace after death.

Biutiful is a masterfully made film with deeply compelling acting, hauntingly beautiful cinematography, and original storytelling, all under Iñárritu’s confident direction. Go see it, think about it, and appreciate it.

 

By Aaron Young Smith, Staff Film Writer.

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