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.
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