Posted by: gdevi | July 21, 2011

Movie Review: Biutiful (2010)

Alejandro Inarritu is often billed as one of the triumvirate of the new Mexican cinema, the others being Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro. Inarritu, Cuaron and del Toro have each evolved their own distinct styles treating very different subject matters and themes to create a distinct auteur tradition in new Mexican cinema. I have my favorite of the three directors, Guillermo del Toro. Like Marquez or Borges, he has a dense lyrical and metaphysical style that blurs the borders between history and narrative textuality that greatly appeals to my sensibility.  I try to screen both El Espinazo del diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) and El Labyrinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) for my students whenever I get a chance.  Gorgeous movies. Cuaron’s Children of Men is also one of my favorite movies. The sheer force of his camera work is brilliant. What a beautiful movie. Inarritu’s most popular movies–21 grams and Babel –– never really appealed to me–melodramas don’t appeal to me unless I am studying them–though I did like the sort of naturalistic grittiness of Amores Perros.  But I really liked Biutiful, Inarritu’s most mature take yet on the influence of death on life. There are also rumblings of a metaphysical dimension in this movie that suddenly makes sense out of all the squalid violence of his low lives. But his masterful coup in Biutiful is none of this, but an arresting ode to the underworld of illegal immigrants, the third and the fourth worlds that live inside the first worlds.

Uxbal, played with understated and unforgettable passion by Javier Bardem is a small-time underworld operator in one of the most squalid slum districts of Barcelona. He and his brother procure Chinese immigrants illegally for factories and sweatshops, run illegal street vending of sunglasses and pirated CDs  by African immigrants, and pay off police officers who want to bust the illegal immigrant trade. Uxbal lives in the same slum and he is poor. He has two small children that he cares for and an ex-wife (Maricel Alvarez) a manic-depressive alcoholic junkie who is also sleeping around–he does not know this initially– with his brother and other men. And what do we know, he is also diagnosed with a terminal illness right at the start of the movie and told that he has only two months to live, in a most generous estimate. Uxbal is a man living on the extreme edge of the ledge and anything will topple him. But he also has a gift–he can talk to the souls of dead children and help them leave this world and enter the next world. The scenes with the ghosts have a naturalistic validity to them; Uxbal lives equally authentically in both of these worlds. There is no special scaffolding needed to introduce the ghosts. Grieving parents seek him out to learn how their dead child is doing. This is the metaphorical trope that makes this movie beautiful and which ties the tragic and squalid lives of its characters together.

When told that he has only two months to live, Uxbal is tortured by anxiety about what will happen to his children; though he is a stressed father, he is also very loving towards his daughter Ana and the little boy, Mateo. Uxbal keeps his illness a secret from everyone around him, and decides to forego treatment. He would rather save the money for the future of his kids. Uxbal tries to repair his relations with his ex-wife–she comes and goes as she pleases — for the sake of his children. One day he comes back from his underworld work to find that his wife has left the children alone at night, his young son has tried to smoke a cigarette and set fire to the mattress. The wife throws the mattress down the stairs, beats the boy, and makes him carry the mattress up the stairs as punishment.  “I don’t have what the kids want,” she tells him, “I would like to be faithful to you, but I also want to have fun, like a whore.”  Not when you have two small children, no; Uxbal tells her and takes the children and leaves. Inarritu shoots these scenes of the hysterical, abusive mother and the scarring of the children without demonizing anyone; people can’t help being who they are. This unstable mother character who is eventually hospitalized  is Inarritu’s direct challenge to whatever we tend to think of as a metaphysical power in this universe.

While Uxbal’s personal life is unraveling because of his awareness of his immediate death, his underworld dealings also begin to crash and burn. The police busts his illegal street sales and the Senegalese man, Ekweme, who was his “second” in the street trade gets deported by customs officials. Inarritu shows us the seamless exploitation in the the sewer-like life that illegal immigrants live inside big European cities. The Chinese immigrants–men, women, children–live packed in the basement of a factory from where they are woken in the morning and carted to a construction site where they work for pittance. The metaphysical thread that binds the characters together becomes increasingly visible as Uxbal takes Ekweme’s wife and baby son to his apartment so they have a place to live and will not be evicted by the police.  This is all the money I have, Uxbal tells Ige, Ekweme’s wife, please take this, the rent for this apartment is paid, the children like you, please live here. It is in Uxbal’s interactions with Ige that the metaphysical dimensions of this movie becomes consolidated. When Uxbal tells Bea, another woman with a similar gift to commune with the dead, that he is worried for the future of his children, Bea tells him, go, die in peace, whether or not you are aware of it or not, it is not you who takes care of anyone or anything, it is the universe. It is the universe that takes care of your children, not you. So die in peace. Ige, the illegal immigrant living on the dregs of the society, about to be kicked out by the Spanish police and immigration officials  becomes in Inarritu’s story-telling, the embodiment of the universe taking care of Ana and Mateo.  It is in this sense that this is a deeply spiritual movie. The final scene where Ige comes back to Uxbal’s apartment–she had contemplated taking Uxbal’s money and leaving–where he lies dying, Inarritu shows her almost like a ghost-like character; there are ghosts, immigrants are ghosts, ghosts are like immigrants, waiting on the border between visibility and invisibility.

This is often a painful movie to watch. This is one of Bardem’s best performances to date and the movie is really a one-man show for the most part. Diaryatou Daff, the Senegalese actress plays Ige with gentle strength and clarity. One of the most lyrical scenes in this movie which is otherwise filled with darkness and despair is the one where Ige waits for Uxbal’s kids outside their school with her infant son on a sling on her back, and walks them home, she on one side of the street and Ana and Mateo on the other side, keeping their distance from each other, but Ige reassuring them that she is watching them, and the kids making sure that she is behind them. The scenes with the Chinese immigrants, the horrific tragedy that befalls them and Uxbal’s part in it are hard to watch; Inarritu has finally moved from melodrama to true tragedy. A very very good movie.

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