Saturday, May 28, 2011
Biutiful Movie Review
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fourth feature film, Biutiful, is a structural, though not a thematic, departure from his earlier films. In drafting a story (with a screenplay co-written by Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone) centered on one main character in a single city, he has wisely eschewed the thematically heavy convention of interconnecting stories that have a common focal point. As much as I admire his other films, there is artificiality in the way he tries to illustrate the ways in which all humanity are inextricably tied to one another. With Babel it became a bit too preachy for my taste.
However, in Biutiful he presents a portrait of a man, Uxbal (played by Javier Bardem in one of his best performances) – a father, husband, underworld criminal and spiritual visionary – who learns he’s dying of cancer. Everything in his life is called into question as he has only a matter of weeks or months to reconcile his morality and life to find inner peace.
Obviously the themes are no less grandiose than what you’d find in Iñárritu’s other films. And to some extent, he’s replaced the interconnected turmoil of different lives with the internal chaos of one man’s multiple identities. Uxbal is a loving father of two young children, Ana and Mateo. Though they live in near squalor and play out a regular fantasy role play in which the children order what they want for dinner and then pretend that their shredded wheat with milk is actually a gourmet meal, Uxbal is always conscious of providing the best possible life for them. One character trait that becomes more pronounced as the film progresses is his awareness of their innocence as children and the need to protect them.
This is why he tries to keep them from his estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), a bi-polar prostitute who is fundamentally incapable of properly caring for her children. Bardem’s performance never lets us forget that he loves his wife and his children, even when he’s got his hand around Marambra’s throat to make her release Mateo into his (much more capable) care. It is only love that causes him to allow Marambra back into the children’s lives in the first place.
In addition to all this, Uxbal is a go-between in the seedy criminal underworld of Barcelona. He works as part of a syndicate along with his brother Tito (Eduard Fernández), himself a morally bankrupt operator of a sleazy strip club who occasionally sleeps with Marambra. He collects payouts from Liwei and Hai, undocumented Chinese immigrants who run a sweatshop in which knockoff products are produced for the African immigrants to sell on the street. Uxbal also collects from the Africans, including Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaya), and then provides payola to the police so they will let them continue selling their wares on the street illegally.
When Ekweme is arrested and facing deportation, his wife Ige (Diaryatou Daff) and infant child are left with no recourse until Uxbal offers her room and board in his home. Conveniently, seeing the nurturing and comforting manner she has with the children gives Uxbal a few ideas about the future of his progeny.
As a man who has always profited from the exploitation of immigrant workers, Uxbal begins to show much greater concern for their lives after his tragic discovery of his own fate. His greatest interest is in those who have small children. In addition to Ekweme and Ige, he takes a personal interest in a young Chinese woman, a sweatshop worker, with an infant son, both of whom sleep in a cold basement room with a couple dozen other Chinese immigrants. Uxbal’s attempt at a good deed for the Chinese has a tragic end, the result of his making a decision on the cheap. But this kind of exploitation even through good deeds is a consistent characteristic of Uxbal even when he uses his ability to communicate with the recently deceased to earn a profit from bereaved parents.
One thing that leaps out at anyone vaguely familiar with the city of Barcelona is that this is not the Barcelona of films like Vicky Christina Barcelona or L’auberge espagnol. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography captures the seedy underbelly of the tourist haven. You won’t see any of Gaudí’s architecture here. His camera often remains in tight close-ups or medium shots. It feels claustrophobic, like the world that is closing in around Uxbal.
Although I think this is the weakest of this year’s five Oscar nominees for Foreign Language Film, it is Bardem’s performance that holds the story together. His expressive face tells us everything we need to know about Uxbal. However, it might have been marginally more interesting to have written him as less sympathetic (he is a criminal, but not a bad man) by giving him more of an edge and really make the script and actor work for the audience to be on his side.