Uxbal lives a hand to mouth existence dealing with illegal immigrants in modern Barcelona. He manages Africans selling cheap goods to tourists and finds work for Chinese labourers on a building site. This puts him under continual scrutiny from the police. Meanwhile he has to raise his young children and navigate a difficult relationship with his ex-wife.
BIUTIFUL is the fourth feature film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Iñárritu is the award-winning filmmaker who also made AMORES PERROS (2000), 21 GRAMS (2003) and BABEL (2006). Audiences have come to expect a level of high intensity and seriousness from this director and his latest feature continues in this vein.
Uxbal (Bardem) is a man trapped in dire financial straits. None of his work is strictly legal. His day to day existence involves bribing police, helping his illegal workers avoid the authorities and trying to be a good father to his son and daughter. Worse still, he is plagued with health problems. The film is a gritty examination of life very near the bottom in a major European city suffering the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.
Iñárritu is a director who likes to deal with multiple ideas as he did in BABEL. Although he is on record as saying he wanted BIUTIFUL to be a simple story of one main character, he has made a film packed tight with themes and concepts. Uxbal’s spirituality which seemingly runs counter to his role as illegal fixer also has overtones of the psychic and supernatural. The difficult lives of the African and Chinese immigrants are glimpsed through his eyes. But is he helping these poor, desperate people or is he propping up a rotten system for his own financial gain?
Uxbal is a loving but uncompromising parent to his children. He finds dealing with his 6 year old son Mateo particularly difficult. This may be because his own father was gone before Uxbal got a chance to know him. This loss is one of the many strands of his life that he is attempting to understand. We get the sense that he is a disappointed man, burdened with the responsibilities he has assumed, yet at heart he wants to do right.
The film is beautifully shot. The performances from Maricel Álvarez as Marambra, Uxbal’s ex-wife and Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella as the children, are excellent. The movie isn’t a one man show, yet Bardem is the powerful centre holding the whole thing together. Iñárritu had wanted to work with him for some time and apparently the feeling was mutual. He always had Bardem in mind for Uxbal. “Nobody else could have brought to the character what he has brought,” Iñárritu said in interview. In Bardem, he has the perfect collaborator for his vision. The actor never seems to be doing much as Uxbal, this is as non-showy a portrayal as one can imagine. This is the seamless skill he brings to the role.
Films about existential struggle are usually the preserve of independent or arthouse cinema. Some audiences won’t care for this movie because of the toughness of its subject matter. BIUTIFUL is the cinematic opposite of the slick Hollywood entertainment that rewards the audience for devoting 90 minutes to watching a slightly off-beat character achieve his or her dream.
Clocking in at 148 minutes, one could describe the film as overlong. One of the friends I went with said, “Let people know this isn’t a good date movie.” That is absolutely correct. The film unflinchingly examines a narrow life. Iñárritu’s brilliantly detailed, truthful and unrelenting view of a hard world was completely engaging in my opinion.
I will leave you with an Iñárritu quote: “Biutiful for me is a reflection akin to our brief and humble permanence in this life. Our existence, short-lived as the flicker of a star, only reveals to us its ineffable beauty once we are close to death.”
BIUTIFUL is screening now in Australian cinemas. I rated it 4/5.