The first words uttered in Biutiful are also the last. “¿Es real?” someone asks about a diamond ring at the beginning, and the question is repeated at the end. But “Is it real?” could also be posed about what flits across the screen. Of course, all cinema is illusory, flickering shadows, but Biutiful flaunts its “realism” by immersing us in the harsh lives of people who lack privilege. It is more “real” than The King’s Speech, for all of that film’s foundation in fact, if we accept the convention that “realism” is the gritty art of hoi polloi misery. Barcelona, the Catalonian metropolis that, especially after the 1992 Olympics, became the capital of cool, is the film’s setting, but its city of mean streets and squalid flats is as far removed from the urbane glamor of Whit Stillman’s Barcelona and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona as Paris, Texas is from Paris, France.
It is a perilous netherworld in which, as one policeman puts it, “It’s dangerous to trust a man who’s hungry.” Everyone here is hungry, not least Uxbal, who staves off starvation for himself and two young children by putting undocumented immigrants to work hawking knock-off designer purses and pirated movies. He also pockets fees for exercising psychic powers, an ability to commune with the dead. After he conveys a message from a deceased boy’s spirit to his grieving parents, the mother complains: “You came here to bullshit us.” The grateful father nevertheless hands him a fistful of euros. A scuzzy hustler, Uxbal genuinely believes in the reality of his visions, but a viewer of Biutiful need accept only the reality of theatrical possession; Javier Bardem fully inhabits the complicated character of Uxbal, tender dreamer and callous con.
“You’re not Mother Teresa,” observes the cop whom Uxbal bribes to let his peddlers work the streets. Uxbal profits from the desperation of Chinese and African refugees, but he also buys heaters to ease the sleep of more than a dozen foreign sweatshop workers lodged together in a chilly, shabby warehouse basement. He never knew his own father, an opponent of Franco who was forced into exile in Mexico, and he is determined, without quite knowing how, to be a decent father to his own children. Uxbal is raising Ana and Mateo without much help from their lunatic, sporadically absent mother. Clinically diagnosed as bipolar, Maricel Álvarez’s Marambra is a perpetual paroxysm of raw, uncontrollable energies. She gives massages and more to strangers and justifies her behavior to Uxbal with an excuse that might also apply to any of the film’s other characters: “I do what I can to survive.”
For Uxbal, survival is particularly problematic since, early in the film, he is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and given only months to live. How does a man whose life is as much a shambles as his grungy little apartment face up to the imminence of the end? The prospect of mortality concentrates this film in a way uncharacteristic of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s other works. In Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros, he was the Robert Altman of Mexican cineastas, juggling and cross-cutting multiple story lines and ultimately forcing them to converge. If the proliferation of plots exercised and advertised his prodigious talents, it sometimes also dissipated them. This time, the focus on one scruffy pícaro’s final troubled months gives the film power, and even a certain grandeur. Much of the hand-held film is shot in extreme close-up, making the viewer attend to the sweat of everyday life. The few images glimpsed of a world beyond the dismal quarters of the working poor — a snowy forest, an owl, the sea — are so stunning they enable a viewer to share Uxbal’s experience of access to sublimity.
In Life Is Beautiful, the popular 1997 Italian film, Roberto Benigni’s Guido Orefice tries to transcend the terror and horror of a Nazi death camp by reassuring his young son (a bit too blithely) that la vita è bella. More subtly and convincingly, Biutiful affirms that some flawed splendor abides even in the most improbable circumstances. Working on a coloring book, 10-year-old Ana asks her father how to spell “beautiful.” Uxbal does not know English, as he does not know the Chinese and Wolof spoken by the migrants he deals with. So, relying on his Spanish pronunciation, he spells the word out phonetically, and imperfectly, for his beloved daughter. John Keats declared that beauty is truth. If so, Biutiful is a vision of blemished truth. Is it real? Is there an alternative?
The most popular tourist destination in Spain, Barcelona never looked so bad, to such memorable effect.
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu; writ. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone; feat. Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Eduard Fernández, Diaryatou Daff , Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella (R)