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Javier Bardem in Biutiful

Morality and Mysticism Among the Lower Orders


In his previous films, the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu spun out multiple story lines with disparate characters experiencing apparently unconnected events in diverse circumstances. Their lives eventually connect in unexpected fashions.

Iñárritu has exhibited a penchant for tragic misfortune and superficial complexity in these films. The linkages he creates for his characters aren’t the liberal humane kind that the English novelist E. M. Forster exhorted his readers to reach for, not at least through much of Iñárritu’s films.

In Biutiful (nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar), he abandons multiple plot lines to concentrate on one noble but woebegone individual. The disturbing, unintended consequences and fates he has customarily visited on his large casts of characters are now piled on one lonely, intensely suffering guy. Uxbal (Javier Bardem, also Oscar-nominated) is a low-level underworld entrepreneur in Barcelona. He and his brother operate a network of illegal-immigrant street vendors and sweatshop and construction workers.

This isn’t the kind of setting or enterprise in which one would ordinarily expect to find a man of decent and charitable instincts, but Iñárritu has, somewhat perversely, conceived of Uxbal as an unusually admirable man. Not just in comparison to his unsavory associates and neighbors, but in comparison to members of any social stratum. As the film progresses, Uxbal seems to become imbued with a saintly forbearance and moral fortitude. He displays a genuine concern for the African and Chinese illegals for whom he finds illicit work, interceding with their brutally exploitive employers, and trying to protect them from the corrupt Barcelona police.

In his personal life, Uxbal is operating under burdens that would sorely tax a respectable middle-class guy. He’s effectively a single father since his estranged wife (Mariel Alvarez) is an often childish, strung-out manic depressive who’s unable to function as either a spouse or mother. She’s more like an additional responsibility for Uxbal than a co-parent.

Early in his film, Iñárritu (who co-wrote it) adds another layer of tribulation: Uxbal is diagnosed with a terminal illness, one with a short projected trajectory. Still, on he soldiers, telling only one person and trying to continue with the discharge of his duties to all who rely on him. Any moviegoer who thinks things can’t get much worse is going to be underestimating Iñárritu’s aesthetic commitment to grim excess. His film holds still more grueling revelations.

He has threaded an element of moral counterpoint through this grim personal saga, a spiritual strain that was vaguely evident in his previous work, especially in Babel (2006), and which is more palpable here. Iñárritu has made Uxbal a mystic, one who sees and talks to the recent dead, communicating with them on behalf of their relatives. The director has framed his narrative with this other-worldly concept.

Iñárritu seems to have been after a depiction of transcendence, and of individual redemption, but Biutiful’s tenor quickly becomes one of anguished sentimentality. He’s been typically adept at handling the mise, at establishing a milieu, and he’s guided the actors to skilled and sensitive performances. What gravity and moral weight the film has comes primarily from Bardem’s portrayal of stoic suffering, forbearance, and human concern. But eventually, while the actor’s impressive efforts continue, the movie’s tragic overload overwhelms him. Iñárritu’s infliction of human ills and destruction is so extreme, it begins to seem he’s assembling a cinematic monument to suffering. In the process, he disposes of secondary characters as if they were only collateral damage. Biutiful resembles a lower depths soap opera, one with an arbitrarily unsatisfactory resolution. The suffering is finally so great that if it weren’t so obvious that Iñárritu was serious, you might suspect that he had tried to create a very corrosive black comedy.

Instead, he’s been intent on creating a saint of the social netherworld. Uxbal isn’t really Job-like, however. He doesn’t question his afflictions, and the Biblical Job was finally restored to his wealth and family. Iñárritu’s very odd and extreme fable doesn’t allow for this.

Watch the trailer for Biutiful

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