It’s Not a Grave, It’s a Niche

Hey, Dad, do you know what happens to owls when they die?

A Review of Biutiful

**Spoilers Ahead – Read with Caution**

It’s not a grave, it’s a niche.  It’s a seemingly innocuous piece of dialogue, a clarification on the not-so-final resting spot of our protagonist’s father – a father he never knew, a father who fled Spain as a political exile only to die in Mexico of pneumonia and be shipped back to Barcelona to be tucked away by his widowed wife in a niche.  But it’s also symbolic of the niche this family has carved out for themselves over the generations where fathers are sent to early graves.  Progress and globalization threaten this niche – a mall is to be built, the niche destroyed, and the corpse cremated – as do calamities and ailments including cancer both literally and figuratively.

Our protagonist, Uxbal (Javier Bardem in a devastating performance) is trying to make do in a Barcelona that is coming apart at the seams.  He deals in knock-off goods and illegal workers.  He’s also trying to raise his two young children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estralla – both naturalistic and deserving of sympathy) while being estranged from his bipolar wife (Maricel Alvarez in a wonderfully complex and flighty performance in perfect pitch through all her mood swings) who is sleeping with his opportunistic and corrupt brother (Eduard Fernandez).  But in the all the varying shades and undulations of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s maddeningly complex and perversely intertwined world, nothing in what it seems on the surface.

The needs of these crooked businesses for cheap illegal labor lead to exploitation of innocent workers.  It’s a cancer on society – and Uxbal knows this.  You see, he has a gift – he can see and talk to the dead, and he even uses that to make a few bucks on the side when needed.  When he’s told he’s dying of actual cancer, he sees it as a punishment for all the wrong he has done and the metaphorical cancer he has helped fester and breed in Barcelona.  Suddenly he is thrust into a crisis where he must atone while at the same time secure enough funds so his children are taken care of when he’s gone.  The physical and spiritual journey Uxbal then takes makes for one of the finest pieces of near-death cinema to grace the screen in a very long time.  It’s not for the faint of heart, but the payoff is well worth the heartache and agony.

After crumbling under his own ambitions and over-reaching vision in the miscalculated Babel, Inarritu is back on track with Biutiful.  This is exactly the type of grim, intimate, complex, morally ambiguous, quasi-spiritual film you should expect from the man who gave us Amores Perros and 21 Grams.  By many measures, this is his most accomplished and haunting film to date.  The way he so naturally weaves in the spiritual and the supernatural into a story so gritty and down in the grime of real life is unparalleled by any other working auteur.  He has a keen ability to capture those small moments — both ugly and beautiful.  Here he is most powerful when he shows how in the intimacy of a family eating dinner, a smile can turn into anxiety at the turn of a screw, a word, a gesture…the way all of these moments interlock and form the fabrics of our tragic, wonderful lives…our memories…our dreams.

Innaritu is still not without his quirks, though.  The side plots involving a young Senegalese couple and a group of Chinese immigrants don’t always fold well enough into the fabric of Uxbal’s story.  The relations there seem strained (or convenient) at best and detract from the film’s main focus.  Though one can’t deny, they do add another layer that is at the very least interesting and not wholly detached from some of the greater themes.  Also, for whatever reason, Innaritu seems to be in a cage-match fight with Darren Aronofsky on who can create the most immersive “protagonist-is-on-the-verge-of-an-emotional-breadown-and-goes-to-a-club-to-get-wasted” scene in modern film.  They have both done this repeatedly in their films.  There’s nothing to fault with any of these scenes from any of their films from a technical standpoint, but c’mon, guys, it’s overdone.

These minor quirks can be easily forgiven as Innaritu also pulls off his greatest evolution with Biutiful.  His once insatiable need to edit everything with a hacksaw and jumble timeframes has perhaps finally been exorcised from his storytelling soul.  The events of Biutiful are beautifully linear, except for its judiciously placed and mysterious opening scenes, which in reality are the film’s final moments.  We don’t quite understand what we saw and heard in the beginning until the very end.  However, at about 2/3 of the way through the film a piece of dialogue concerning what happens to owls when they die that was spoken in the film’s opening sequence is repeated by Uxbal’s son.  It makes for a moment where your stomach drops at the realization of what it all means.

The Biutiful Pyrenees

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more haunting pair of bookends to a film in recent memory – stunningly composed images of two men meeting in the woods…in the snow…in the Pyrenees – or as Uxbal’s daughter, Ana, once misspelled, the Biutiful Pyrenees.  At its core, Biutiful is a film about family, memories, ghosts, and both the curses and the gifts we leave behind.  It’s a film where even if a family was never there at the same time, they can leave their hearts together in the mountains…in the snow.  You see, it’s not a grave up there, it’s a niche.

Written by David H. Schleicher



    Biutiful is a film so powerful, only Inception and Winter’s Bone topped it as the best films of 2010, which is a list I feel now needs to be amended. That placement would knock The Social Network out of my Top Ten and into the group of Honorable Mentions.

    The Top Ten Films of 2010:

    1.Winter’s Bone – Debra Granik
    2.Inception – Christopher Nolan
    3.Biutiful – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
    4.Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky
    5.The Ghost Writer – Roman Polanski
    6.Shutter Island – Martin Scorsese
    7.Vincere – Marco Bellocchio
    8.True Grit – The Coen Brothers
    9.Cairo Time – Ruba Nadda
    10.The King’s Speech – Tom Hooper

    Honorable Mentions:

    **The Social Network – David Fincher

    ◦127 Hours – Danny Boyle
    ◦Fair Game – Doug Liman
    ◦I Am Love – Luca Guadagnino
    ◦Mother and Child – Rodrigo Garcia
    ◦Please Give – Nicole Holofcener
    ◦The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko
    ◦The Square – Nash Edgerton
    ◦The Town – Ben Affleck
    ◦White Material – Claire Denis

    I would also like to add Jessica Hausner’s film, Lourdes, to my Honorable Mentions.

    Check out my full year-end wrap-up and 5th Annual Davies Awards in Film:

  2. Shall we also rank Inarritu’s films?

    21 Grams – 10/10 (this is still my best film of 2003)

    Biutiful – 9.5/10 (though it could be a 10/10 on second look, and by many measures it was a more mature, accomplished film than 21 Grams)

    Amores Perros – 9/10

    Babel – 6/10

  3. I went into this movie with a sense of dread. Iñárritu’s sensibilities are commendable, but he, as you say, often overreaches, “Babel” being the worst offender. But I was pleasantly surprised at how focused it is and how good the movie is. You rightly point out how some of the supporting character’s stories don’t fit all that well. I was especially put off by the gay Chinese sweatshop owners. What was that all about?

    I also want to echo your praise of Maricel Alvarez. Her fantastic performance is being overshadowed by Bardem’s great work. I would have gladly knocked Hailee Steinfeld or Melissa Leo out of the supporting actress category for her.

    This is a great essay and, though I didn’t like the movie quite as much as you, I liked it a lot. (B+ territory). Still, you have written a great and insightful essay here. I especially love the way you highlight the great opening and closing sequences. It was a great choice and wonderfully executed by Iñárritu. I almost want to see the movie again just for those scenes.

    Thanks, Jason! I really loved this film – I can’t stop thinking about it and I loved how Inarritu was able to add so many layers of meaning and interpretation while staying (for the most…or better…part) focused on Uxbal’s “journey.” I thought all of the supporting acting was very good, but Alvarez especially. She did an excellent job of portraying a bipolar personality without going overboard on the histrionics. She was definitely worthy of Oscar consideration, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be for her.

    Though I’ve heard great things about Susanne Bier’s nominated film (which I don’t think has hit the States yet), I’d be shocked if this didn’t win Best Foreign Language Film.–DHS

  4. “After crumbling under his own ambitions and over-reaching vision in the miscalculated Babel, Inarritu is back on track with Biutiful. This is exactly the type of grim, intimate, complex, morally ambiguous, quasi-spiritual film you should expect from the man who gave us Amores Perros and 21 Grams.”

    Well David, while I must say I liked BABEL quite a bit more, I love the comparative framing, and applaud this superbly-written and reasoned essay. It’s an often powerful downbeat work, with an electrifying performance at its center, and it brings in fate and predestination and other themes that Innaritu has examined through his career. Your passion here has resulted in one of your greatest reviews! Yes, the Chinese sweatshop segment was inexplicable, but largely the film works superlatively.

    Babel 9/10
    Biutiful 8/10
    Amoros Perros 8/10
    21 Grams 6.5/10

    Thanks, Sam! Hmmm…not a big fan of 21 Grams, huh? With the Chinese sublplot, it’s almost as if Inarritu couldn’t help himself…he just had to go look down another street for another story to try and shock us…but it was at the very least interesting. –DHS

  5. A terrific review, David, and one that captures much of the film’s essence for me.

    To make a case for it, I actually feel that the Chinese workers are very important to this story. Even the fact that we call them “the Chinese workers” is noteworthy. We empathise with Uxbal’s problems and his pending death. We find significance & resonance in it. Yet, some mild horror apart, we do tend to think less of these other people’s circumstances and their grim demise. In other words, our “real world” knowledge of how so many people live tends to depersonalise their suffering to some extent. In this respect, I am reminded of Lucreta Martel’s excellent “The Headless Woman”, which really emphasises this point about the invisibility of people.

    In addition, these characters do round out Uxbal and the overall points that this film wishes to make. For example, they make us ask interesting questions about monsters and morality. We see Hai as a family man, lover, and callous businessman. We see the Sengalese migrants as drug-dealers and as people who just want a better life in a world that denies them much. It obviously makes us ask what we would do to feed ourselves & our families. Hopefully, though, it also makes us think more deeply about the huge inequalities that create and maintain such a society to begin with.

    Longman Oz – WOW! You make an excellent case for the “purpose” of those subplots so many (including myself to an extent) have dismissed. I think you are definitely on to something there, and when I watch this film again, I will be sure to keep these things in mind. I did see Hai as a character foil for Uxbal. –DHS

  6. David,

    I must say you got me going. The moment I read “It’s Not a Grave, It’s a Niche” I was dying to read your review but when I read **Spoilers Ahead – Read with Caution**, I stopped. Since then, I’ve been waiting for Biutiful to release in India. Finally, it did. I saw this masterpiece and the next thing I did was read your review. Extremely insightful and poignant like the film itself – both were Biutiful. You have this knack of piercing through layers in one viewing. I plan to review it myself.

    I’ll save up most of my thoughts for my review which I’m sure you’ll read. But I agree with Longman Oz that the sub-plots are pivotal to the story. For instance, the subplot is (or atleast becomes) important in the climax — Uxbal wouldn’t leave (or die) as he wasn’t ready to leave his family all alone, and finally when he does it’s probably because he knows that Ige is ‘there’. That security is important for him. The subplots also add to the building-up of Uxbal’s guilt and like you said the metaphorical depiction of his cancer. They also make for a good diversion, which though initially look like these are unnecessary, in the end make a lot of sense. One can go on and on, it’s multi-layered. Having said that, I also agree that the sub-plots could do with some trimming. Stuff like the “gay” thing (it almost seemed forced and included just coz depicting homosexuality is the ‘in’ thing), and like you pointed out the ‘club scene’.

    I’ve already spoken a lot. More in my review. For me it’s the best movie of 2010 (which I saw in 2011 though). And yes, I definitely rate this movie as Inarritu’s best. Here’s my ranking:

    Biutiful – 10/10
    21 Grams – 9.5/10
    Amores Perros (over-rated yet good) – 8/10
    Babel – 6/10

    Prakash – I had a feeling you would find much to savor in this powerful and consuming film. I can’t wait to read your full review! I’m starting to agree with you and Longman on the subplots debate. I can’t wait to watch this again with that new perspective. –DHS

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