Film review: Biutiful
Biutiful is beautiful. Yes — in a mis-spelt and fraught, but very real way. For it is about a father’s love for his children and his magical reunion with his dead father. Dedicated by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu to his own father, this production is very potent and very raw.
Yet far from folding into a claustrophobic flesh-and-blood milieu, the film could hardly explore ideas more ambitious and make statements more macro. Set in the forgotten fringes of modern Barcelona, it hurls us through the realms of corruption, illegal immigration, worker exploitation and struggles for sheer survival. We hurtle past the paranormal and tumble towards the after-life.
In Iñárritu’s Babel, a stray bullet would link disparate characters across different continents. Here, one man is the nexus between people from Europe, Asia and Africa — never mind between the living and the dead.
Uxbal is a hustler in the underbelly of society. He shuttles between people smugglers and rapacious police to put desperate refugees in jobs — basement sweatshops and gruelling construction sites — for a cut in hastily exchanged cash. To eke out a living, he also taps on his clairvoyance to relay unsaid messages from the dead to their family — sometimes braving humiliation and hostility. But, above all, Uxbal is a father; his daughter Ana and son Mateo are his raison d’etre. Estranged from their mother, Marambra, an alcoholic who suffers from bipolar disorder, he has been granted custody of the children.
So, when he is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and given merely months to live, Uxbal becomes as debilitated by worry about the future of his children as he is by the rapidly spreading disease. Stoically, he begins to stash money away and wants to believe in Marambra’s self-proclaimed rehabilitation.
Widely declared as redemptive, the movie strikes me more as a purgatory. While Uxbal goes out of his way to intercede with the corrupt policeman for the young Senegalese father and stands up fervently for the welfare of the Chinese underground workers — presumably to make amends to those on whose marginalisation he thrives, he finds himself helplessly complicit in the former’s incarceration and the latters’ mass poisoning. That torment of guilt is to become the cross that he bears to his grave.
Iñárritu’s writing, as his direction, is scalpel-sharp and cruel. I cannot help but recollect the policeman’s prophetic words about the hungry tiger that mauled its long-time carer — a rich metaphor for (hungry) Uxbal’s relationship with the (fodder-feeding) refugees.
Dense morbidity is punctuated with precious few aesthetics: a swirling swoon of birds against a clear blue sky is a rare reprieve from hovering spirits and multiplying moths while the frame of winter trunks leaning picturesque against a snowy backdrop delivers Uxbal (and us) from incontinence and blood in urine. Meanwhile, Gustavo Santaolalla’s original music builds atmosphere with stylised wit.
Iñárritu’s skilful craft fuses this life with the other-life. Uxbal is briefly reconciled with the late father whom he never knew when his embalmed youthful body is exhumed to make way for an urban mall — the facial recognition that is to pave the way for their divine reunion.
This film’s force field summons from Javier Bardem’s Uxbal. He orchestrates the action as a stern disciplinarian, a husband defeated in the effort of expression, a churning face of conscience and a guardian of love. Maricel Alvarez’s Marambra is utterly convincing as the disoriented mother and confused wife — carnal hunger etched on her face. There are also excellent performances by Hanaa Bouchaib as daughter Ana and Guillermo Estralla as son Mateo, Cheng Tai Shen as the ruthless and bisexual Chinese smuggler and Diaryatou Daff as Ige the nurturing young Senagalese wife. However, they are metal peripherals sucked towards Bardem’s magnet.
Bookended by tender moments between father and child, Biutiful begins and ends with enduring beauty — however elusive that may seem in between.