“Getting your affairs in order” is such an infuriatingly benign idiom for the devastating reality one must grapple with in the face of imminent death. Sure, we’re all going to shuffle off this mortal coil one day, but what is it like to know you have mere weeks to audit your entire existence? And what about leaving behind young children? This is the torturous hand dealt to Uxbal (Javier Bardem) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s mesmerising elegy Biutiful.
Set in the immigrant melting pot of modern Barcelona, Uxbal is a man who lives on his wits. As the middleman in a knock-off handbag trade, Uxbal is on friendly terms with the Chinese who run the factory, the Africans who peddle their wares and the cops who take a cut to turn a blind eye. But Uxbal also has certain mystical gifts, and in an incongruous side gig, he is called upon by grieving families to help the spirits of their loved ones leave this realm peacefully. So as someone who routinely faces death, how will Uxbal reconcile his own?
After a series of sprawling, multi-narrative films like Babel and Amores Perros, Alejandro González Iñárritu attempts to take a step in a new direction. He says the film is, “about one character, with one point of view, in one single city, with a straight narrative line,” but clearly he can’t help himself. Though Bardem fills most scenes, Iñárritu still manages to shift focus enough to fashion a complex love affair between the Chinese factory head (Cheng Tai Shen) and his business associate (Luo Jin), as well as the fate of a stranded Senegalese mother (Diaryatou Daff) after her husband (Cheikh Ndiaye) – and one of Uxbal’s workers – is deported. Indeed, the fact that these subplots aren’t given their usual Iñárritu airtime results in some rather clumsy, oversimplified rendering of the inherent cultural and economic politics at play.
Despite such a messy patchwork of subplots, Biutiful is well and truly redeemed by Bardem’s quietly Herculean, heart-rending honesty. His performance raises the film to a place of transcendent verisimilitude. And where Iñárritu is unflinching with his close-ups, and Bardem responds in kind, giving a startlingly gaunt and unvarnished performance, which will surely bring even the toughest souls to tears. The fact that the actor has recently joined the ranks of fatherhood only adds to the resonance of this carefully etched portrayal of paternal love.
The young actors playing Uxbal’s children (Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella), both give uninhibited performances, particularly Bouchaib as Ana, who seems fated to follow in her father’s spiritual footsteps. Less emotionally balanced is Uxbal’s ex-wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), whose manic depression is brought to devastating life by Alvarez’s passionate, scene-stealing performance. She is so impressive it makes you wish Iñárritu had invested more time witnessing the couple’s disintegrating love.
At 148 minutes, Biutiful is a long and intimate affair. And though it might prove difficult to find the right time to subject yourself to such sorrow, what Iñárritu and Bardem ultimately achieve is a remarkable portrait of an unremarkable life. Simultaneously intensely personal and profoundly universal, Biutiful shows there can be grace, and yes, even beauty in death.
- Four stars
Published on The Vine
Biutiful will screen on May 18th for the opening night of the Spanish Film Festival in Auckland. Check the website for more details.