Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members’ souls are stuck in limbo. This week they discover Barcelona’s biutifully ugly underbelly in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful.
Normally, Henry, it goes the other way, doesn’t it? A foreign film gains sufficient traction with States-side audiences to entice a studio to bang out an Americanized version. Here, though, from what I gather, Alejandro González Iñárritu has made a de-Americanized version of The Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis becomes Javier Bardem (hell of an upgrade, that); dreary Philly becomes dire Barcelona; estranged wife becomes bipolar estranged wife (Maricel Alvarez); sad cute little boy… remains a sad cute little boy (Guillermo Estrella); and the ghost story becomes an immigration allegory. Basically everything is sadder, rawer, the stakes are higher and the lows are much lower.
The city of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is nowhere to be found in this portrait filmed in the Catalan capital’s bowels. From Uxbal’s (Bardem) claustrophobic, rotting and spectrally infested apartment, to the illegal basement dorms, sweatshops, cemeteries, funeral homes and the dirty alleys that lead him in between them, Biutiful‘s streetscape is anything but beautiful—in fact the whole film might be a formal exercise in shooting the very ugly attractively. Having a whole mass of rugged masculinity like Bardem with which to sculpt probably helps in this regard, though Biutiful‘s star is by far its darkest, ugliest figure.
We meet the man, after an egregiously pretty snowy dream sequence, in tight and very uncomfortable close-up during a prostate exam. A few minutes later he’s wincing as he pisses blood. Uxbal, father of two and separated from his unstable wife (the amazing Alvarez), scrapes together a living supplying street vendors with fake designer goods, making him the not-as-guiltless-as-he’d-like-to-pretend middle-man between African purse peddlers and Chinese sweatshop workers. He makes a little on the side as a part-time liberator of restless spirits, visiting grieving families and helping the souls of their recently deceased leave in peace. The weight of his responsibilities to these various and very vulnerable constituencies weighs on his broad shoulders, the spirits he can’t set free haunt him, and Bardem alternates between mask-like expressions of sorrow and pain. Which, of course, is also because (spoiler) he’s dying of prostate cancer, adding an ever-present countdown clock to the very deliberate, nearly real-time progression of Biutiful‘s many tragic scenes. (Is unedited temporal realism this Oscar season’s rebuttal to last year’s noxious nostalgia?)
As with Iñárritu’s pretty universally despised globetrotting Oscar-baiter Babel, Biutiful has drawn criticism (like from our colleague Andrew Schenker) for incorporating issues of globalization and illegal immigrant poverty as tokenistic, quasi-topical window dressing for the A-list star’s personal crises. But Uxbal’s domestic discontent, familial dissolution and fast-approaching death seem inseparable from Biutiful‘s pro-immigrant rights politics. His attempts to redeem sustained immoral behavior both at home and in work through quasi-noble last-minute acts of charity fail for the most part, the not-quite-tragic ending—in which a Senegalese woman whom Uxbal has helped takes charge of his kids—providing only very temporary respite from several open-ended disasters. What do you think, Henry: is Iñárritu just baiting saps such as myself with dead immigrants and cute kids? (Although, to be fair, the son is also kind of annoying, right?) And how about that awesome sound design, huh? Aside from the occasional excessive heartbeat, it felt like all the audio was recorded from inside Uxbal’s tumorous prostate. Beautiful!
Sutton, if you’re asking me whether you’re a sucker, I’d say, “totally!!” Sure, Biutiful—whose intentional misspelling is about as clever as The Pursuit of Happyness‘—is set in a dirty, dingily lit city of hustlers and homeless, a world of exposed pipes and peeling paint. But I wasn’t impressed by its true grit; it struck me instead as aesthetically oppressive miserablism, in which the film unabashedly wallows as though squalor contains inherent meaning and thus beauty. (Is it p-p-p-p-poverty porn!?) Bah, this is one long manipulation—like, it’s not even enough that Bardem has cancer: he has prostate, liver, and bone cancer! Really, Ben?
If this is a de-Americanized version of anything, it’s Crash. After all, Iñárritu’s scope isn’t global(ist), as is so often the case with New Humanist movies, from Paris to Hereafter. Biutiful takes place within the borders of one municipality, but it still manages to be polyglot and multicultural; it fits the world into one city, highlighting not just the life of one member of Barcelona’s ponytailed psychic class but the immigrant poverty that surrounds it: African sidewalk peddlers pushing shoddy merchandise produced by indentured Chinese bootleggers, whose sweatshops feature stacks of DVD burners.
I, uh, appreciated the broadness of Iñárritu’s humanism, the way he let us spend time with the Africans’ families, in their homes, or with the homosexual Chinese boss guys—the way the director lent ostensibly secondary characters some semblance of humanity, making their lives seem as important, or at least as complex, as a main character’s. But come on, Ben: (SPOILERS) then there’s the eventual intertwined, multistranded tragedies, including 25 dead Chinese laborers, suffocated on the industrial floor they called a bed? Dead that include women and small children? You told me to bring extra tissues to the screening, but I found it hard to cry at something so desperate for my tears, like the hero of White Meadows or something. And I cry at everything. (I will admit, though, I was occasionally moved by Bardem’s sad insistence that he wasn’t ready to die. I hear that, totally!)
A movie so hysterical for feeling of course trades in the shaky cam “realism” that has become the dominant aesthetic for such expression (though the film’s bookends were impressionistic enough to border on hallucinatory). So, I was a bit confused by Bardem’s side gig as a communicator with the dead. I figure it’s a numinous counterpoint to the film’s hardscrabble ethos. But I think its central function is to lend credence to the movie’s New Age-y comforts—that is, it’s just Iñárritu’s final, feel-good manipulation. I’m sure you ate it up, Ben.
Categories Baited: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Javier Bardem), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Maricel Alvarez), Best Director (Alejandro González Iñárritu), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto), Best Sound Design (Martín Hernández).