Directed by Alejandro González Iñarritu
Uxbal’s drunken wife stumbles into the apartment at 3 a.m., a fur coat draped over her shoulders and hair in a wild mass surrounding her slender face. She leans out of the balcony, fixing her gaze on the sky and comments on the stars, diverting all questions of where she’s been. She walks to the sink and begins scrubbing a dish with an unexpected manic zeal while talking of an upcoming trip. Uxbal’s pug-like eyes betray a quiet hopelessness as he watches her from the kitchen doorway—he has seen this all before. “My love, what you see over there are not stars. It’s your nervous system,” he says to himself, and sulks off.
Uxbal was referring to his wife’s unmanageable bipolarity—a topic that normally suffices as the meat of any decent modern-day movie conflict. In Alejandro Iñarrito’s Spanish film “Biutiful,” it is only one of many tragedies that plague our psyche for the duration of the movie. It will likely do so for years to follow. Make no mistake, “Biutiful” is not a movie easily recovered from.
Evident from his English-language films “Babel” and “Birdman,” director Alejandro Iñarritu is skilled at distilling the essence of human grief and torment. Spanish actor Javier Bardem is the primary conduit of this grief, transfixing us with the many facets of death, causing us to question our own distanced relationship to the inevitable fact of life.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a father of two, living in the bustling underground of Barcelona, Spain. To support his son and daughter, he oversees the sale of counterfeit merchandise on the streets—bartered by African immigrants—as well as the work-placement of Chinese immigrants. We are overcome with a shameful sense of unease as we encounter the damp, bunker-esque dwellings that house an indeterminate amount of African immigrants.
Outside of the story’s context, It might be easy to condemn Uxbal for his role in the exploitation of immigrants, but while immersed in the scenes, we place no blame and harbor no judgements for the wrongs he commits. In one instance, Uxbal pitifully confesses, over the pulsing music in a high-end strip club, that he is dying of cancer, and we willingly forgive the fact that just moments earlier he was snorting cocaine off of a credit card.
If impoverished immigrants and terminal cancer were not enough to comprise a story of trials and tribulations, we soon discover that Uxbal can also, rather terrifyingly, see and speak with the dead. Bardem continually tugs at our humanity with his instinctually empathetic reactions to the death that envelopes his character. As the movie progresses from one destitute situation to the next, one point becomes excruciatingly clear—to be human is to suffer.
Uxbal may be dry and cracked on the surface, but he is guided by a moral and spiritual compass as fixed as his red-eyed glares. He reveals his character in an early scene, as he enters a private funeral for the death of three children; brothers. He is left alone with three grey boys in coffins, and sits in the corner chair. A small voice begins mumbling in the room, and the camera scans to reveal one of the boys sitting in the chair behind the row of coffins, his eyes dark with death.
Uxbal chants, “Still are your lashes, so is your heart,” fending away the terror that threatens to deter him from the task at hand; helping the boy pass peacefully into the next world. This “next world” draws nearer to Uxbal as the cancer takes over—a progression made uncannily clear through the visual aids of unsynchronized reflections and black moths that gather around mold spots on his decrepit apartment ceiling.
A movie of this intensity may not appeal to those who’d prefer to keep their gushing heart inside their chest cavity. Iñarritu taunts us with injustice, liberally exhibiting shots of Chinese workers, stiff and sprawled across sleeping bags on a cement floor, asphyxiated in the night by a continuous flow of propane from industrial heaters the size of small children. “Biutiful” leaves us as wounded and destitute as the characters in this narrative, forcing us to take reluctant solace in the suggested notion that death is cold and still.