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.



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