Defeated by the city: Biutiful

By Rob Packer

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful engrosses right from its two opening scenes, with the camera on a bed looking up at two hands outstretched above it and voices talking about the story of the ring on the man’s finger, followed by Javier Bardem’s character Uxbal talking to an unidentified man in a snowy forest. The audiences knows nothing about the context or the characters, but González Iñárritu drip-feeds just enough mystery to absorb the audience completely in those two scenes; by the time the same two scenes are repeated at the end of the film, the context is so poignant that everyone in my group left the cinema in complete silence.

The film is unremittingly gloomy and the seems to be no escape from Barcelona’s criminal underworld of illegal immigrants and their keepers: for Uxbal and his children, his estranged alcoholic wife and the groups of Chinese and Senegalese immigrants from whom Uxbal receives his cut, this life of misery seems to be the best they can get. González Iñárritu has managed to sheer Barcelona of anything that makes it recognizable and when you see the Torre Agbar or the Sagrada Família at its cranes on the horizon, they seem to be mocking the characters’ experience and turn the city into an unforgiving, almost evil, force. Unsurprisingly next to this, the Barcelona of films like All About My Mother seem naïve or that of Vicky, Christina, Barcelona almost grotesque.

Against this background, Bardem is fantastic as a dying father with an illegal immigration racket. It is pretty clear that before his illness he could hold his own against the oppressive city; but in the course of the film, fate strikes back when the police crack down on Uxbal’s army of street hawkers, despite paying them off, or he loses another group of “employees” in a terrible accident. And as his cancer advances, his new helplessness is palpable as he struggles and fails to create a decent future for his children.

While watching Biutiful, I couldn’t help thinking that the film’s rawness, emphasized by the use of handheld cameras, makes it aesthetically very much a Mexican film set in Europe (and at times audibly with the blast of Café Tacuba early one). The plot’s focus on immigrants, an ever-present and frequently forgotten part of modern Spain and often the biggest losers in today’s Europe, makes it look like the outsider viewed by the outsider who understands the situation all too well. This also makes it the kind of film I have trouble imagining a European making; and, to me, that makes it even more worth seeing.


Skopje: A capital with a “nice personality”

By Rob Packer

When Yugoslavia began to fall apart in the 1990’s, the only person I knew who’d been there was my mum, who visited the country twice, most recently in 1980 shortly before Tito’s death. As a ten-year-old beginning to grow curious about the world, I wanted to know what it was like in this place whose violent images of war populated news bulletins. One of the things that stuck in my mind was her description of Skopje as a dump. Unsurprisingly when I visited the city in January, my expectations were far from high.

Not too bad: the view from Skopje's fortress.

Communist-era architecture in Skopje.

When you arrive somewhere with low expectations, you’re easily impressed and as cities go, Skopje isn’t all that bad and I have seen far worse cities to pass 24 hours in; Read more of this post

The City of Consuls

By Rob Packer

Bitola, Macedonia’s second or third largest city—it depends who you ask—, about an hour away from Ohrid, is a town that’s down on its luck. What was once the Balkans’ second largest city (after Thessaloniki) and an Ottoman provincial capital, now seems a bit of a backwater: it was an agricultural and trading centre for the region with a lot of grand houses to show for it, but fell into insignificance after the Balkan Wars of 1913 when Bitola found itself 14km from the Greek border and in the furthest corner of an area reorienting itself towards Skopje and Belgrade. Today the process is so complete that there isn’t even any public transport across the border into Greek Macedonia. And even if it is factually correct, the city’s nickname, the city of consuls, must seem more and more anachronistic: this city of barely 100,000 people still hosts 11 consulates including British, French and Russian ones, apparently locked in a game of chicken where no-one wants to be the first to go.

Backstreets of Bitola, Macedonia's city of consuls.

In a similar way to Sarajevo, Bitola seems Read more of this post

A saint’s heartbeat: Sveti Naum

By Rob Packer

If you put your ear close enough to his tomb at Sveti Naum Monastery, they say you can still hear St Naum’s heart beating 1100 years after his death.

Maybe the Orthodox choral music was too loud, maybe I didn’t know where to listen or maybe it’s an Orthodox-only treat, but I didn’t hear anything from beyond the grave at the monastery, spectacularly sited under the shadow of Galičica Mountain and on the shores of Lake Ohrid barely a kilometre from the Albanian border. The monastery was founded in the 10th century by St Naum, a disciple of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two 8th-century brothers, who famously conducted one of the first Christian missions to the Slavs and one of whose names I’ve known since I was 13 in my first Russian class where we learnt the Cyrillic alphabet.

Inside Sveti Naum Monastery.

My last visit in Ohrid to a church over a millennium old.

Like so many of the churches around Lake Ohrid, the monastery is covered in frescoes and the taped choral music and smell of incense make it seem like you’ve stepped back in time to another age. But Sveti Naum goes further Read more of this post

Ohrid: Europe’s Oldest Lake

By Rob Packer

It doesn’t seem like much of an exaggeration to say that Ohrid was once the most important Slavic city: it was a key religious centre for the Orthodox religion and was the capital of the Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the 11th century. At its peak it was said to have one church for every day of the year and is possibly the place that invented the Cyrillic script now not just used in countries like Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia, but even as far afield as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.

As soon as you catch a glimpse of Lake Ohrid, one of Europe’s oldest and deepest you realize that this is a special place; it’s not as high or as deep as Titicaca—which I haven’t visited—or even as Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan—which I have—but as you emerge from a pine forest to catch a first glimpse of Sveti Jovan Kaneo on a cliff over the lake against a background of snow-capped mountains, it really does seem magical. I even met a Macedonian philosopher who believes that this city, its location shaped like the bowl of a Greek theatre, was founded by King Philip of Macedon and Aristotle as an experiment—after a long drinking session.

Sveti Jovan Kaneo, Ohrid at sunset.

Of the 365 churches that supposedly existed in this Balkan “Jerusalem”, the ones that remain are spectacular covered in frescoes with elaborate iconostases. But getting to see them was difficult with Macedonia out for the low season. Read more of this post

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