Life is Biutiful

The story of a man on the road to redemption, Biutiful shows viewers the contradiction that darkness can light the way

Javier Bardem’s brilliant portrayal of the impassive Uxbal brings to mind Marlon Brando’s memorable performance as Paul in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris.
Javier Bardem’s brilliant portrayal of the impassive Uxbal brings to mind Marlon Brando’s memorable performance as Paul in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris.
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Director Alejandro González Iñárritu illuminates a more realistically squalid, impoverished and crowded Barcelona as the backdrop for Biutiful, a departure from the lavish estates we’re used to in portrayals of Europe
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu illuminates a more realistically squalid, impoverished and crowded Barcelona as the backdrop for Biutiful, a departure from the lavish estates we’re used to in portrayals of Europe
Credit: 
Supplied

Movie: Biutiful
Starring: Javier Bardem
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Duration: 148 minutes

4 out of 5 stars

Uxbal’s life is not beautiful. But after we witness his experiences, our lives feel very much so. Biutiful gives you that tragic exhilaration we thought only existed in Holocaust movies. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has also done Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, helms every minute of Biutiful with grim agony. For a film this depressing, the title is a tremendous paradox.

Or is it? I’ll get to that later.

It stars Javier Bardem as the aforementioned Uxbal—the impassive Uxbal. At first, he doesn’t want to believe in the spirits, the dead or the clairvoyant, but it’s in his financial interest to learn about them. This man is a sinner; you can read it on his face. Remorse swells on his face while he tries to hold an optimistic simper around his son and daughter. Uxbal is a sinner but also a good man.

He has two Asian factory owner associates, several laboring illegal immigrants. His divorced bipolar wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), wants him back or rather needs him back. His children are young and restless and his son still has problems wetting the bed. But the worst predicament of all: Uxbal has cancer, a cancer in a later stage which has spread through his prostate into his bones and liver. He’s a goner, the doctor uncomfortably states.

Now that Uxbal realizes he has days to weeks left (since he refuses to take the chemotherapy to postpone the inevitable) his life moves in rewind, things emerge out of focus and he tries to make ends meet. He takes his inevitable death with such pause and apathy, by holding a look that seems it could crash into sadness at any moment. His children enchant him, but he cannot emotionally force himself to reveal they will inevitably be fatherless. Even his son says at dinner: “I would hate not to have a father.”

We don’t cringe at the irony, but at the inevitable reality that will soon follow.

Not a frame of Biutiful is very delightful, but not a frame is dull. Iñárritu, as flawed as he can be, never fails to compel us with how he sees the world. I found his other three films to be good, but very cynical and at times pot-boiling. Biutiful, believe it or not, is about the ascendance into happiness and an escape from the pain of life. It’s Iñárritu’s most mature film, analyzing the mixed blessings of death.

This gets me to where I promised I would allude to: “Biutful” is not a paradox, but an important ambiguity created from a drawing by Uxbal’s daughter, who misspells “beautiful” as the title’s form. This gives the word an innocence. It could suggest the beauty of departures or a statement that we should try to find those odd magnificent moments in our life, like Uxbal tries to impossibly do.

Before then, we reach a conclusion. The ending then is great release. It’s some of the finest catharsis in recent years.

Uxball is a material man. He tries to stipulate people and choices with money, but he has faced a phenomenon that cannot be bribed or bargained with—death. He visits his prognosticator and she tells him: You will die.

Uxball refuses, but it is his fate. Uxball is important because people are important and Bardem is a very humanistic actor. His explosive angst and imploding guilt have sparked comparison to Marlon Brando’s bravura performance in Last Tango In Paris. Whether I agree or not, Brando and Bardem have a vulnerable gaze that could shatter you.

Biutiful was filmed in Barcelona, Spain—but this is not the “Barcelona” we know. It is not tall resplendent estates, lovely food markets, and decadent restaurants. This is Iñárritu’s “Barcelona”: squalid, impoverished and crowded (unlike Bardem’s Barcelona fix in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

In Biutiful, Iñárritu shows a story of a fading life, though he has some motif redundancies (a blaringly loud club scene, deportation and immigration).

Iñárritu is just searching for some universality, much like his other films. It didn’t need it. Bardem has the skill and charisma enough to be deadpan and not bore, but engage us in a character study. We would rather inquire: Does Uxbal deserve his fate? Will he go to Hell for the blood on his hands? He has manifestations that are dangerously symbolic, but compelling and inventive.

The final scene of Biutiful is more personal than cinematic. I don’t think it matters if, where or how heaven exists. But it does to Iñárritu. However, his last line compromises a spiritual resolution, by asking a question that leaves us up in the air.

Of course Biutiful is aggressive with its symbolism and it does manipulate viewers. Iñárritu just knows how to do it right. When you exit that theatre, you receive that odd and rare feeling that this film has changed you.

Biutiful starts showing tonight at The Screening Room.

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