By Don Simpson | January 28, 2011
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writer(s): Alejandro González Iñárritu (screenplay), Armando Bo (screenplay), Nicolás Giacobone (screenplay)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella
Where do I begin in describing the sheer shittyness of Uxbal’s (Javier Bardem) life? OK, I’ll start with his wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), who is not only bipolar but also an alcoholic and an abusive parent. We first meet Marambra as she dances donning only panties above Uxbal’s brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández), while Uxbal is on the other end of the telephone line discussing with Tito the sale of their deceased father’s grave to a shopping mall developer. We realize immediately why Uxbal left Marambra — a massage therapist who, more than likely, does not shy away from happy endings — and how he earned full custody of their 7 year-old son, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), and 10 year-old daughter, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib).
Uxbal works as a middleman in a knock-off industry in which Chinese immigrants (under the inhumane management of Chinese sweatshop overseers — who also happen to be gay lovers) produce fake luxury items in sweatshops and an army of African men sell the faux products on blankets along the sidewalks of Barcelona. Uxbal finds himself overseeing and protecting the Chinese (subtitled in blue) and the African (subtitled in yellow) workers. (Spanish is subtitled in white.) Uxbal bribes the local police, negotiates the illegal immigrants’ wages and attempts to improve the shoddy at best living conditions of the Chinese immigrants (who live in the dungeon-like basement of the sweatshop). But everything that Uxbal does to help the workers is riddled by arguably selfish motives: he steals a meager cut of any money that passes by his hands — including the money given to him to purchase heaters for the Chinese immigrants’ living space (a decision that comes back to haunt him quite literally) — and when one of his African salesmen (Cheikh Ndiaye) is arrested and deported, Uxbal provides for the man’s wife (Diaryatou Daff) and infant child in exchange for her essentially becoming his live-in nanny.
To supplement the little cash that he is able to skim from the aforementioned business venture, Uxbal utilizes his [super]natural ability to communicate with the dead in order to perform séances for grieving families. As we can see from the unbridled suffering on Uxbal’s face, these séances are not easy for him; and on top of that, he is riddled by guilt for accepting money for this God-given skill.
Uxbal is not just trying to scrape together enough money for him and his children to survive on a day-to-day basis, but also to save up a nest egg to support his kids after his death. Oh, did I forget to mention that Uxbal is dying of prostate cancer? (We are treated to several scenes of Uxbal peeing blood and/or writhing in pain to really drive this point home.) Uxbal is essentially sentenced to die in a couple of months — presumably as punishment for all of his selfish decisions — and he tries to hide the bad news from everyone including his kids.
So, do you get the picture? Uxbal is quite heavily weighed down by the proverbial cross of atrocities that monopolize his life. Uxbal is as sympathetic of an antihero that has ever graced the silver screen; he is a man who cares quite deeply about the consequences of every single one of his actions, and we can only imagine that so much guilt has accumulated over the course of his lifetime that his death by cancer is essentially his own doing.
Other than Bardem’s Oscar-nominated (and Oscar worthy) performance, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful excels as a bitter and jaded portrait of the working class and immigrant struggle in modern Spain. Despite being plowed down by his shit-storm of a life, Uxbal trudges onward with the sole purpose of caring for his children. We come to understand that Uxbal resides in a world that is so lacking in goodness that his possibilities for good choices are quite limited. Uxbal’s greed is nothing compared to that of the people of higher economic classes and his choices are all made for the future of his children. I cannot think of any other actor who would be able to translate Uxbal’s emotional reactions to the constant pummeling of exaggeratedly dire circumstances as realistically and sincerely as Bardem.
Biutiful is González Iñárritu’s first film since parting ways with Guillermo Arriaga, his screenwriter on Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel — a trilogy of films that are multi-character and multinational narratives told in fractured, non-linear styles. With Biutiful, González Iñárritu exudes enough confidence and patience to stay put in Barcelona, following just one main character in a perfectly linear storyline (with the exception of the opening sequence, which is repeated again at the close of the film).
The biggest (and possibly only) fault with Biutiful is the sheer ridiculousness of many of the overtly contrived scenarios that Uxbal encounters. González Iñárritu’s constant piling on of the guilt and the pain with no real chance of redemption transforms Uxbal into an almost Sisyphean character; he is stuck at the very bottom of the Capitalist food chain, working as hard as he can but getting absolutely nowhere. All Uxbal has to look forward to in life is finally meeting the death that has been haunting him his entire life.
The Oscar-nominated (representing Mexico in the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year category) Biutiful is as dire and morose as cinema gets. I suspect very few viewers will walk away from this film without shedding a tear. In other words—plan to watch Biutiful with plenty of tissues in hand.