Not Beautiful but Brutal, Ugly Facts and Transcendence in Inarritu’s film Biutiful

The death of the body, the survival of the spirit

by Daniel Garrett Volume 15, Issue 8 / August 2011 14 minutes (3470 words)

Biutiful, a film directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring Javier Bardem
Focus Features, 2010

I imagine that a cosmopolitan vision of the world, as expressed in art, could help us to better understand the world and act with compassion, intelligence, and even grace in our lives, but I do not know if that is really true. The cosmopolitan connotes cultural and social complexity, but sometimes complexity means more trouble, not less. Sometimes complexity results in confusion and conflict and moral compromise. For all the artistic and financial value and personal freedom that some people have access to in a cosmopolitan place, there are always people on the margins, people who glimpse that larger world from a position of difficulty and need, of poverty. In the film Biutiful, written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, with Rodrigo Prieto as director of photography and Brigitte Broch as art director, we catch glimpses of the more glamorous aspects of a cosmopolitan city, a city that could be New York or London or Paris or Rome, but is here Barcelona, the city and port northeast of Madrid in Spain, a city long known for manufacturing and fashion and music and sports and literature. The Barcelona in Biutiful is quite gritty. This is also a beautiful film, but this is the beauty of the everyday, of plain faces and accurate gestures and worn furniture, of slang and suggestion, of the reflection of a father and his children seen in the water topping a city sidewalk.

The film Biutiful tracks the movements of natives and immigrants, particularly the Chinese who run a sweat factory and the Africans who sell on the street the merchandise made in the factory: cheap copies of designer goods, the kind purchased by people whose taste for luxury has been awakened and stoked, though they cannot afford the genuine items. The central character is a well-intentioned man, Uxbal, played by the great Spanish actor Javier Bardem, an actor who can look handsome or ugly, and register as intellectual or sensual, the actor who starred in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and was featured in No Country for Old Men and many other films. Javier Bardem’s Uxbal is a connecting link in what is criminal activity: the creation of imitation and unlicensed goods made and sold by illegal immigrants; and he has an unstable (manic-depressive, or bipolar) wife and two young children to worry about, and finds out that he himself is seriously ill. Research went into the film, as did rehearsals, and the use of actual locations; and the result is a film that looks and feels true. (In one instance, one of the film’s actresses faced deportation, with life touching on the issues of art.) The film is about life and death, money and poverty, faith and doubt; and it is fascinating to see it as one more chapter in the long work that is western culture, a chapter in which the importance of spirit is challenged by the social necessity of money.

Money. Gold, silver, copper, paper. Items of desire and use. Items of value. Iron, bronze—and, in some places, beads, furs, shells, skins, and tusks. What can anyone say about money now? Everything is given a price tag, not only diamonds and oil, but air and water. Is there any place or anyone who remains beyond its conquest? Money, a standard and token of value, an embodiment of labor, is what we use to exchange what we have for what we want. It is both magical and mundane. Sweat-drenched pennies can become crisp dollars, and dollars can be turned into food or shelter or the trinkets of pleasure. Is money the foundation of our lives, the thing that makes everything else possible? Is it the goal of our lives, the thing that delivers the ultimate earthly freedom and power? Is it incidental, merely one facet among many? Does it matter only because we think it does? It is a cliché that money does not make people happy, but the opposite cliché is as true: not having it can make us very unhappy. Most of us have some money, but not enough of it; and what we do in light of that fact determines to a great extent the character of our lives. It is as chilling as it is instructive to think of all the great works of art—the great stories—that are actually about how to get and keep money.

The film Biutiful, which may be a great film, begins and ends with a father, Uxbal, telling his daughter about a ring a family elder, the girl’s grandfather, gave to his wife before leaving home, and a scene of a young man (who looks like the grandfather when young, with both Spain and North Africa in his face) talking to Uxbal in a snow-laden forest in which lies a dead owl. What happens in between can be considered a flashback, life flashing before the eyes close for the last time. The pony-tailed, leather-jacketed Uxbal, though concerned with the urgencies—emotional, financial, legal—of urban existence, also has spiritual concerns and a spiritual gift, as he is believed to be able to communicate with the dead; and what we see is his perception of the newly dead and what they have left to say, something presented simply. Uxbal visits a wake for three children killed in an accident, and imagines or sees one of the boys quietly sitting, a restless spirit, a boy who apologizes for stealing a watch. The mother of the dead boy is angry that her son is identified as a thief, but his father is grateful that his son’s spirit now can rest and puts money in Uxbal’s hand. Unfortunately, as often happens in life, Uxbal finds out he himself is ill when it is too late to do anything (he is in great pain, given to nausea, and there is blood in his urine; he has cancer, which has spread from his prostate to his liver), but Uxbal must continue his work, and provide a safe place for his children, Ana and Mateo. Uxbal refuses to accept the death of his body, not only for himself but for Ana and Mateo, as Uxbal lost his own parents when young and does not want them to go through the same thing.

It is remarkable that Uxbal has a unique relationship to death: knowing that he is ill, but also believing that there is a reality beyond the cessation of human breath. When the dead boy’s mother rejects the declaration regarding her son’s theft, she calls Uxbal ignorant, and certainly belief in life after death appears to be superstition, but, if it is, it is a superstition that the filmmaker affirms, as he shows us—and we see—what Uxbal sees. In another film, a rare ability to communicate with the dead could be the principal subject. Here, it is one more fact about Uxbal’s life; it is not presented in a way that is spooky or particularly strange. That is one more sign of the evolution in how the supernatural is shown in cinema, and also on television and in literature. It is a reminder that there was a day when philosophy, religion, and science were once connected as intersecting fields of both belief and knowledge, each explaining matter and mind but also having an aura of magic and manipulation, but that as science became prominent in society—and studies could be made and repeated proofs given—the supernatural became identified with the fantastic, the ignorant, the neurotic, and the tawdry. In recent decades, although medicine, science, and technology have given us amazing things, so many that we do not know or remember always the fact and logic of how those things work, we seem to be developing a renewed taste and tolerance for the supernatural—and the supernatural appears in respectable work for both children and adults. Is it only entertainment? Do we not believe or understand the logical or scientific explanations we are given? Do we want a mystique and power that is more than human? I do not know, but I do recall going through a difficult personal time, when literature and philosophy and political analysis no longer gave me much pleasure or satisfying insight, and I was drawn to books and films of fantasy. It was fantasy that seemed equal to, and greater than, the complex (crazy) reality I was facing, not the reasons and rigors of the human mind. Whether or not there is life after death, in Biutiful Uxbal believes there is.

At one point, Ana asks how to spell the word beautiful, and Uxbal says that it is spelled the way it sounds. Uxbal loves his children, but their meals might consist of both cereal and cooked food, and he leaves them with a young Chinese babysitter while he is away. It is a life that could look precarious from the perspective of a stranger. Uxbal’s bony wife, from whom he is separated, has been diagnosed as mentally ill: in her manic phase, she pursues “fun” and is given to a certain sexual wantonness, and in her depressed phase, she withdraws and the children wonder if she is angry at them. She can do simple things that make her seem odd, including constant chattiness, eating ice cream with her hands, and putting her foot on the table as her family eats. Yet she senses disapproval and disrespect, and wants Uxbal to respect her. (It is a good performance from the actress Maricel Alvarez; and a character—desperate and dumb—I do not like. What did Uxbal see in her? Possibly a carefree attitude, a lack of pretension, an impulsive sexuality.) Her young son is, apparently, critical of her, and she hits him in frustration, proving she cannot be trusted to protect her children. She even leaves Mateo behind, and alone, when she goes with her daughter Ana on a planned family trip to see the snow in the Pyrenees.

In the busy streets and alleys of Barcelona, Uxbal is involved with both crime and the law, to the extent that he gets money from the Chinese sweatshop owner with which to bribe the local police, whose influence is both significant and limited (the bribe protects the street salesmen in certain areas and not others, and with regard to selling the knock-off handbags but not with selling drugs). The policeman that Uxbal deals with is likable and practical, friendly but not a friend. The collusive relationship between the police and the criminal is one more indication that lines blur in this rough world. Things are not neat and simple—except when they are: a large group of armed, black-suited policemen raid the street salesmen for selling drugs, and they run away but are caught, some of them getting hurt. (Previously, one of the policemen used sex as a metaphor for domination, for messing someone up.) It is a scene of power and powerlessness we have seen before, in film and on city streets. It is always happening, just as the conflict and need and pain and dying in the film are always happening, though faith might deny it, though glamour might deny it, though official politics might deny it. Such a view repudiates pretty lies, but it is heartrending to describe how utterly dispiriting it can be to hear again and again how hard and relentless social forces can be. Uxbal, who goes to the aid of one of the African street salesmen, a friend, is arrested too; and Uxbal’s brother bails Uxbal out, while the Senegalese man is deported, but Uxbal’s relationship with his brother Tito has its own contentions. Tito (actor Eduard Fernandez) does not really understand Uxbal, and expresses his casual racism when he notes his surprise that Uxbal would fight for a black guy. Tito and Uxbal do come together to retrieve and cremate their long-dead father’s body, when his coffin must be moved, with others, to make way for a mall; and yet here, again, the brothers are different, with Tito repulsed by the father’s dead body and Uxbal going toward it, touching it.

Uxbal’s brother has a relationship with Uxbal’s wife, one of several sexual relationships that are unexpected. The married male sweatshop owner has a female wife—and a male lover. The early scenes of the two Asian men together calls to mind My Beautiful Laundrette and Happy Together, images both melancholy and sensual, but the evolution of their contact is brutal. These relationships are presented directly, and while significant, they are not presented with melodrama: these are the mysterious facts of human nature, the messy facts of life, of living in a tumultuous cosmopolitan city. Uxbal tries to reconcile with his wife, and (after Uxbal’s brother and wife give Uxbal differing accounts of their last conversation; after Uxbal finds her in his brother’s apartment) Uxbal tells his brother to stay away from her; but this is not a marital relationship that can last. The woman lacks consistency, and cannot be depended on—she is dangerous. She will go to a hospital, one of the institutions established to help—but we do not know much about what goes on there, just as we go up to the entrance of the children’s school but do not know what goes on there. Are knowledge and insight, is true aid, to be found in any of the official institutions? Luckily, Uxbal in helping the wife of one of the arrested and deported street sellers also helps himself: a Senegalese woman and young mother named Ige has been working in a chicken factory and is being evicted from the crowded apartment she shares with other Africans; and Uxbal lets her stay in his apartment when he and the children move in with his wife, and when the mad wife disappoints and Uxbal returns Ige helps Uxbal feed and take Uxbal’s children to school, and Ige even tends Uxbal during his worsening illness. Uxbal gives this young woman, Ige (acted by Diaryatou Daff), money for the children and she is tempted to use it for herself—she is tested—but she comes through for Uxbal.

Unfortunately, a tragedy occurs: The Chinese factory workers, some of whom take on construction work, sleep in a large, cold room, some of them getting sick from the cold; and Uxbal wants to buy heaters for them. Uxbal is the only one who thinks of it, and the factory owner gives him the money for that, but Uxbal buys cheap heaters which release some kind of toxin. Compassion is both facilitated and cancelled by the significance of money. The event can be seen as one more agon or agony in the life of Uxbal, and in the film, but it is a central event. It affects the Chinese factory owner’s family and lover. It gains the attention of others in the city. It represents the tensions that were always present in the city and in the film; and it is a fulfillment of those tensions. The fact of human need and vulnerability, and the sympathetic imagination of the spirit, and the power of money all play a part.

A room full of the inert bodies of poor Chinese workers is an unexpected image in a film full of images of energy, color, and mood: a large male hand and a small female hand, that of father and daughter, one passing on a ring to another; the intense and mysterious conversation of two men in frosted woods, as palpable as a scene in Sokurov’s agon Father and Son agon; Bardem as Uxbal, his long, handsome, watchful face framed against blue and black at a children’s memorial; the restless, sad Mateo, stuffing his face with cereal, his table manners disturbing his father; Uxbal’s wife drinking wine and dancing topless to loud music in her brother-in-law’s apartment, not merely flirtation but sexual incitement; Uxbal’s stark, stern face when he is given his dire medical diagnosis (he is dressed in black, against a blue wall); the sweat on the face of an African as he runs from the police; the factory owner’s dressing somberly, stiffly, in pale colors, agreeing to a business change, as his male lover stands near a window, smoking a cigarette, in his blue briefs; Uxbal’s face with rare calm, as he confides in an older woman, Bea, who acts as a confessor, friend, nurse, witch; the hungrily carnivorous face—masculine, quick, tough—of Uxbal’s police contact; the aged, elemental beauty of the stacked, half-empty graves that Uxbal and Tito visit; a Chinese family eating together, and the silence that follows the entrance of the lover of a married man; crawling ants, given the enlarged intimate portrait of a Terrence Malick; the costuming of nightclub performers, featuring multiple breasts, like something out of Fellini; young Ana dressed, packed, and crying against a wall, alone and quiet, as her father prepares her brother to leave their mother’s apartment; and a hazily glittering Barcelona seen through the rain beating on a car windshield.

It seems strange to describe Biutiful as a spiritual tale, but that is what I thought as I watched it, and that is what I thought after I saw it. Spiritual stories in our time—the struggles of the spirit, its defeats and triumphs—must take place where we live, not in idyllic circumstances, but in imperfect lives and worlds; and this one does that. It can be difficult to accept those imperfections. Something in us yearns toward improvement, yearns toward ease and perfection and power. (Woody Allen’s charming, intelligent, and taste-pleasing agon Vicky Cristina Barcelona agon, in which Javier Bardem starred as a seducer of two beautiful women with two different ideas of what love is in an idealized Barcelona, a Barcelona of great art and beauty and culture, of marvelous sophistication, as a film is almost an exact opposite of Biutiful—yet even Allen’s film contains elements of conflict and madness.) We work to gain a measure of useful power; and accepting imperfection even as a fact can seem to be accepting a state we do not like for all time. It may not be that, but it can seem that way—and yet, the only believable stories are the ones that contain elements of that fundamental imperfection. For better or worse, we read or see acknowledged flaws as evidence of truth. By that standard, Biutiful is truthful.

The film makes claims for the spirit, without denying the things that challenge it. Some of the best testaments to the spirit have been made in art, in film and literature and music, in dance and painting and sculpture and theater. It is arguable that in its diversity and flexibility, art has made a more significant claim for the spirit than have religions, which tend to be rigid in their visions. The revelation of the inner life is important work, and some people know it, though not everyone does. (I still recall someone who asked me to define “inner life” when I used the phrase.) Often if art does not garner fame or money, the sensibility required to conceive it, the effort to make it, and the content of it, are not recognized or respected. Some people only see the appearance of matter—what people and things look like, and what price they can bring in the market. To assert that an artist works every day, every hour, the cultivation of his perception and understanding being a fundamental part of his work, but that he does not get paid for everything he does—as not every painting or poem becomes public, or yields dollars—is an assertion that may inspire laughter, sounding like a defense of laziness or a fool’s errands. Yet, there is more to human existence than the material evidence that comes to the eyes, though film depends for a great part of its power on that; and there is more to human existence than the money chase. In Biutiful, after scrambling for money and encountering the great sabotage of a deathly illness, the lead character, in a snowy landscape, meets a man who looks like his youthful but deceased father, a scene that brings together different elements mentioned during the film—it is a dream, or an image of life after death. Of course, I do not know what, if anything, of the human spirit survives the body’s death, but I do know that when the spirit dies the body is worth little.

Essay submitted on July 18, 2011

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 15, Issue 8 / August 2011 Film Reviews mexican cinema