In the desert of Itabira
the shadow of my father
took me by the hand.
So much time lost.
But he didn’t say anything.
It was neither day nor night.
A sigh? A passing bird?
But he didn’t say anything.
We have come a long way.
Here there was a house.
The mountain used to be bigger.
So many heaped up dead.
And in the ruined houses,
cold disdain and damp.
But he didn’t say anything…
-Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Travelling in the family
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful is an emotionally turbulent, metaphysical and dreary journey into the dark and ugly tunnel of life that culminates in unending expanses covered in pristine white snow. In the universe of the film, the quest for beauty reveals horrifying, unpleasant, hard truths about life, it uncovers a life of suffering that must be lived because one fears death more than the misery of such a life. Biutiful also explores the concept of the family— families imagined and dead, desired and lost, reassembled and loathed. Connected to this theme in the film is the one of immigration, of the home/ the world, inside/ outside, inclusion/ exclusion. Iñárritu takes his audience through the streets of Barcelona to create a complex picture of difference and material identity of class, gender, nationality and metaphysical identity that links our lives to one another’s in ways unknown to us.
In his latest, Iñárritu’s adopts a style different from the one he had become identifiable with, one of multiple narratives. Instead he adopts a plot line that focuses on and follows the life of one character, his struggle against his moral dilemmas and corporeality of a body decomposing under a fatal disease. The film has a circular structure akin to the cyclical pattern of life involving birth-life-death-birth. The film starts and ends with the scenes of the protagonist, Uxbal (Javier Bardem) handing over his mother’s ring to his young daughter on his death-bed and meeting his father in an after-life kind of encounter in a snow covered forest. The theme of the passing on of family legacy, of fatherhood is sketched out in gentle tones. While the father offers to and lights a cigarette for the son, as if it were an initiation ritual for the son’s step into masculinity, the father-daughter scene is portrayed through the depiction of a child’s curious hand running it’s fingers over a ring in the adult hand. The father gives the daughter the heir loom, the ring, passing on the love, values and memory of the ancestors that it carries within it. The guiding and protective hand of the parent must hold on to the child till a certain point after which the child must carry on a solitary journey through lands of suffering and learning, where the air to breathe carries with it the ashes of the ancestors.
Biutiful is centred around the character of Uxbal, who, on one end is involved in human trafficking, production and sale of fake goods and on the other, is a spiritual man who can communicate with the dead. He is separated from his wife Marambara (Maricel Alvarez) who is bipolar, unable to handle their two young children but desperate to rejoin the family. Uxbal must father, apart from his own children, the immigrant workers whose suffering he holds himself responsible for. Playing middleman between Chinese sweatshop owners and corrupt policemen, Uxbal treads the razor’s edge in a globalized Capitalistic world that grossly exploits and oppresses its working class. He is an intermediary in this profit maximizing system that he is also a victim of. The conditions of trade and work are not merely unjust but inhuman for the immigrant labour force that had to flee their own country due to poverty. Uxbal and his brother have to sell off their father’s grave to real estate dealers, depicting a loss of morality and sentimentality to a mercenary material existence.
In an interview, (to http://www.guardian.co.uk) Iñárritu expresses that in Biutiful, he grapples with the genre of Classical Tragedy. Uxbal is noble like a tragic hero but not without his ‘hamartia’ or fatal flaw that leads to his decline. His flaw is that he plays the medium between corrupt, exploitative forces and is therefore implicated in the blood bath of several anonymous and illegal Chinese and Senegalese immigrant workers. In the introductory sequence of the film Uxbal discovers he is suffering from long ignored prostrate cancer. The ailment gradually spreads through his body while he simultaneously descends deeper into the malaise of exploitation, bribery and injustice.
Uxbal navigates through the underbelly of Barcelona we see the often omitted or glossed over periphery of the city that is a tourist attraction for its picturesque destinations. As the camera follows the protagonist through different spaces, lifestyles and human conditions of the city the audience witnesses a chase scene in the dark back alleys of the city- illegal street hawkers fleeing from the police, a beautiful Mediterranean beach at dawn with brutally disposed off dead bodies of Chinese workers scattered on the sand, Uxbal’s brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández)’s bedroom. Director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto creates the stuffiness of immigrant cluster living in depressing decrepit neighbourhoods, the sorrowful passing away of those whose lives are not valued, the pacey character of Barcelona, Spain’s second largest and a capital city. Prieto evokes the network of power in the city through his evocative, dimly lit, shadowy frames. The scene in which Uxbal is buying the heaters that intoxicate and kill the workers, creates a sense of foreboding with him walking across the screen with a backdrop of the repeated pattern of a dead shark on several television screens arranged in a row.
Gustavo Santolalla’s score is unsettling and gritty but what stands out in the film are its moments of deafening silence and white noise that shut out, for that moment, all the commotion in the film and the mental states of the characters, creating a moment of complete vulnerability, of free fall. Bardem performs through his heavy eyelids that seem to carry the weight of the world he will leave behind after his death. The complexity of the tragic hero he portrays is so intense that I dare say it affects a cathartic experience in the audience.
Biutiful is not as edgy as Amores Perros (2000), nor does it have the fierce energy of Iñárritu’s debut film. The reason is that though both represent themes of love, loss and death, Biutiful is not Amores Perros. Biutiful has a quality that evokes a slow wrenching in the body, a welling up of the eyes with tears that may never flow down. It deals with both the brutality of existence and death as well as death as an ushering into a world of sensations anew, untrammelled by fear and anxiety.
The film is about the human condition, about setting out on the longest and most tedious voyage, one that reveals to you your inner self. Contradictory waves flow in the film- one is of life at the most wretched end and the other, of death holding hope for a reunion with one’s origin. Uxbal’s daughter asks him the spelling of beautiful and he tells her it is spelt the way it is spoken. The title of the film stands contrary to everything else in the film. The film is never clouded by child-like innocence and naiveté that the misspelt title suggests. It is unpleasant, ugly, turbulent, gritty and severe in its portrayal of economic, social reality and the inescapably of death. However, what is beautiful about the film is how it explores the unending cycle of life and the passing on of ancestral knowledge and legacy.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib