3 March 2011 | howard.schumann
Biutiful offers many touches of hope
"Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light" – Dylan Thomas
Nominated for an Oscar for both Best Foreign Film and Best Actor (Javier Bardem), Alejandro Inarritu's Biutiful is a story about those who live on the margins: Sengalese immigrants, Chinese sweatshop workers, small-time criminals, and corrupt cops who feed at the trough. Set in the seedy back streets of Barcelona, Spain, Biutiful (copying a child's spelling of the word) is not only about fear and degradation but also about faith in the possibility of redemption. The film not only explores the pain caused by globalization and human trafficking but also delves into the mystery and contradictions of life in which beauty and misery can exist side by side. It is not always pleasant to watch but it is an honest and often poetic film in which there are no stock characters. Even the worst of them are three-dimensional human beings caught in a tangled web of circumstances.
Magnificently performed by Bardem, Uxbal works as a middle man, finding jobs on construction sites for undocumented aliens from China and Africa, and supplying goods to illegal street vendors. He must deal not only with the illegal activities he has chosen to be a part of, but with his own torments - a wife (Maricel Alvarez) who is a prostitute and suffers from bi-polar disease, his two small children, Ana and Mateo (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella) who long for stability and love, and a diagnosis of cancer that gives him only a few months to live. Uxbal is a character of contradictions, caught between his willingness to do what it takes to survive, even if it means going outside the law, and his love for his family and concern for the immigrants. These contradictions do not always make sense but lend his character a lifelike reality. He is also a spiritual medium who speaks with the dead or dying who are crossing over and provides comforting messages to those left behind (characteristically for a fee).
The film is shot by Rodrigo Prieto with a hand-held camera that enhances a feeling of intimacy. In the opening scene, Uxbal is seen in a snowy forest with his grandfather who left Spain for Mexico, another connection between Uxbal and the spirit world. This scene takes on more meaning by the end of the film. Inarritu throws many people and many situations into the mix, perhaps too many and the subplots do not always gel. There is Uxbal's brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) who is involved with drugs and strip joints and sleeps with Uxbal's wife Marambra, a Sengalese family Ekweme and Ige (Cheijh Ndiave and Diaryatou Daff) living in Spain illegally, and the relationship of two gay Chinese criminals Hai and Liwei (Cheng Tai Shen and Luo Jin).
When the police arrest his friend, Ekweme, Uxbal promises to look after his wife Ige and their infant son Samuel and Ige takes on the role of his nanny, much to the delight of the children. As Uxbal's health begins to fail, his ties to the crime bosses come asunder, and his relationship with his family reaches a breaking point, he turns to the shaman Bea (Ana Wagener) to seek guidance, ask for forgiveness, and strengthen his connection to the other side. While Uxbal is not the reincarnation of St. Francis of Assisi and has contributed to human suffering, he seeks redemption in the love that he provides for his children, his patience with his wife's condition, and his attempts to reach out and protect the exploited.
As Inarritu has said, "Even if darkness seems to be everywhere, Biutiful offers many touches of hope. I'd even say it's my most optimistic film. Uxbal's character is full of light. He puts a lot into organizing his life, helping his children, loving other people." To paraphrase Walt Whitman, "If you have patience and indulgence towards people, reexamine all you have done, dismiss what insults your very soul, your flesh shall become a great poem." With whatever dignity he has left and after much resistance, Uxbal comes to terms with his own mortality, helping him to move beyond guilt and despair to confirm the beauty and preciousness of life.