Seeing Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s’s latest release Biutiful is akin to being a victim of the volcanic disaster at Pompeii. A slowly unfolding plot erupts over you in your seat for a protracted two and a half hours. An ash-rain of distressing events, piteous characters, bleak interiors and hints of impending doom sprinkle down over you. After a while you become resigned, almost attuned to this level of unpleasantness and become hypnotically stuck in your seat, as though that ash-rain really is covering you over. Once the film has ended, you resemble a body-cast, feeling vague and paralysed and morbid and everybody about you asks, as they did of the Pompeii eruption, ‘why did that happen? Where was the logic in that storm?’
Biutiful is a powerful, uncontrollable force consisting of over two hours of suffering and misery. It is the portrait of the many faces of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a small-time Spanish crook who is imbedded in a two-bit illegal workforce racket. He is a man with many dependents. In his squad of illegal workers are a group of twenty-five Korean factory workers including women and children, and a team of roadside salesmen from Senegal who flog pirated DVDs and fake designer handbags. Uxbal is both a paternal presence and a parasite to them. Whilst he is exploiting them for his own profits, he also builds a society with some of them and feels guilt for their poverty. Uxbal’s warped sense of social morality is further complicated by his family. His wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) is uncontrollable, an alcoholic and sufferer of bipolar, and relentlessly needy. She is an unfit mother for their young children Ana and Mateo (Hanaa Bouchaib & Guillermo Estrella), who for the greater part of the film show no signs of resourcefulness, capability or even much personality. This limping family life is more burden than comfort for Uxbal. And this is not all he is juggling! Uxbal is also overseeing the traumatic exhuming and cremating of his long-dead father, who he has already outlived and longs to know better. A further thread is weaved of Uxbal’s supernatural abilities. He sees visions that are connected with the afterlife and is able to eek a living out of his mystical abilities interpretations of signs from the recently departed. Uxbal’s life, already muted by its complexity and difficulty is struck again and again by tragedy throughout the film, and just to get the ball rolling he is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in the opening scenes.
Unlike more harrowing films such as Schindler’s List, there is little evidence of a political motivation for this barrage of pain. The location of contemporary Barcelona functions as an enclosure, a grim setting, rather than a comment on the quality of life in any particular place. Not once is it hinted that Uxbal’s life will ever be improved or stabilised or the possibilities for his kids widened. This total lack of a silver lining means that the sensations of hope or longing or escapism aren’t ever evoked. Curiously, you get used to it. Maybe Biutiful is s study in acceptance. Uxbal’s family is not so much trapped as simply unaware of any other world.
The presence of supernatural imagery is a crucial narrative thread in Biutiful, as it works to relieve some of the monotony, poeticising the story. The magical motifs accumulate, acting as echoes of events in Uxbal’s life, haunting him very privately. Like everything else in this underbelly of Barcelona, these spiritual connections are monetised, giving Uxbal another income. The special effects are simple and tasteful, especially in comparison to the recent ‘TV afterlife’ depicted in Hereafter. The simplicity of these effects often pales in comparison to the imagery of Uxbal’s actual life - medicinal light boxes, dark secrets washing up on the beach, the tar-like innards of a partially burnt mattress.
Biutiful is a fragmented film. Whilst it honours the tradition of cyclical plot structures in Gonzalez Inarritu’s previous films, it is a generously chronological film. Yet, even though the events happen in order, there are often gaps of unspecified length between scenes. There is an evocative level of information omitted, and one must fit together these broken pieces of narrative as the film moves along. Here Javier Bardem excels. His performance scintillates and shifts through each episode, his character growing and evolving for us. A truly changeable and formidable presence here, Bardem makes palpable Uxbal’s struggle and guilt.
Oftentimes one asks of a film, ‘what is this about?’ sometimes the answer relates to the human condition, or a current issue or idea, and sometimes the answer is simply “entertainment”. The urge to ask this question is always heightened when a film is difficult to watch or a draining experience: “why did they do that to me? For what reason was I shown all of those things?’ The answer is elusive here. It can’t be said that the difficulty of the film has a political or social agenda, nor can it be claimed its bleakness is some form of ‘shock art’ or exercise in the theatre of cruelty. Perhaps it is an artistic agenda: there is some sense of an aesthetic excursion, indeed there is a veritable rainbow of richly realised vignettes, each demonstrating an incredible sense of place and then disappearing like a burst soap-bubble. Here is another example of what my friend Liam calls ‘poverty tourism’, like that seen in The Fighter or Winter’s Bone. Though I think a more accurate term here may be poesis povera.
Here we have a piece very similar to a disastrous volcano eruption or which follows in the tradition of ‘force of nature’ poetry like that of writer Ted Hughes. It’s awful to watch but simultaneously momentous. Like a natural disaster, Biutiful is a film I feel immense respect and awe for, but couldn’t possibly anticipate or enjoy.