Reconsidering Iñárritu’s BIUTIFUL
February 6, 2023
by Jeffrey Ian Ross
Although filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has produced numerous interesting and powerful movies, one of my favorites is his 2010 film Biutiful. The images, characters, and storyline used in this film frequently repeat in my mind and hit me at a deep and visceral level.
Set in modern day Barcelona, but rarely the neighborhoods that most typical tourists and vacationers see or experience, the story touches on salient themes including fatherhood, police corruption, power, precarity race, resistance, spirituality, and violence. Its core message, however, is somewhat ambiguous, open to interpretation, but mostly existential.
Biutiful primarily focuses on the challenges of Uxbal, a tragic figure, played by Javier Bardem, who must negotiate the precarity of his existence and those of the people he cares for and loves.
Like most tragic heroes, Uxbal repeatedly faces challenges that he must overcome, struggles against all odds, as soon as there is a sense of normalcy in his life, another tragedy occurs. In the end he is never truly redeemed.
And in this respect, the movie reaffirms the truism that life does not always follow a traditional Hollywood plot line and the good guys do not always win. There are no romantic notions employed here.
Biutiful starts with Uxbal standing in a forest. It’s lightly snowing and it appears as if he is waiting for someone.
Early in the movie we also find out the Uxbal has cancer, and he learns about it in a drab dark hospital. Neither his estranged wife nor children know about his health challenges.
Throughout the film we see numerous vignettes of Uxbal struggling to support his family. This assistance is not simply financial. Uxbal tries to give his two young children stability and normalcy, and protect them from his wife who is a schizophrenic and drug addict, with whom he has an on again and off again relationship. This danger to his children is cast in bold relief when, at one point in time, she lights a fire in the apartment, evidence of her mental problems and a source of conflict the couple experiences.
Uxbal is the middleman between a crew of illegal West Africans who are selling DVDs and handbags in the streets of Barcelona and a cadre of Chinese immigrants who are sewing knockoff designer bags in a sweat shop.
Towards the beginning of the movie, we also see Uxbal at a funeral home to ostensibly help a young child, who has passed away, make his transition to the afterlife. Our protagonist gets paid a nominal amount and leaves the place. It’s clear that some of the people who are present in the room are not happy with Uxbal’s actions and think that he’s nothing more than a petty hustler.
In order to stay in business, Uxbal must pay off the police who are always keeping an eye on him and his crew of street sellers. At one point in time, there’s a dragnet, and both Uxbal and his crew are rounded up. He goes to jail, and after his brother posts bail, is released.
Meanwhile, his lead seller faces deportation, his children are taken care of by a babysitter and later by the wife of the lead seller. It’s clear that Uxbal has difficulty getting appropriate daycare for his own children, because he does not trust his wife.
In the background is the relationship Uxbal has with his brother. We’re not sure what kind of profession his brother is in, but he’s portrayed as a scoundrel. And they are about to get some money from a developer who wants the land on which the urn of the cremated remains of his father rest.
Uxbal visits a woman who helps him prepare for a peaceful transition to the afterlife, after he dies of cancer.
He tries to reconnect with his wife, but it’s clear that she is not ready to settle down. In fact, she is sleeping with his brother. On the night before his brother and he are going to get the payment for the movement of their interred father, we see Uxbal very uncomfortable in a bar. Meanwhile his brother is happier than ever.
Uxbal feels bad for the Chinese crew who sleep in the same factory where they make the bags. He buys them a number of propane space heaters. Little does he know but the Co2 from the heaters ends up killing them. Because of Uxbal’s powers he sees their spirits floating in the sewing room near the ceiling. Uxbal helps the manager of the sweatshop dispose of the bodies; days later they wash up on the shores of Barcelona. The images of the dead Chinese workers on the ceiling are very disturbing and haunting. When the viewer sees the bodies wash up on the shore, we left with feelings of sadness, as if no one gives them the dignity they deserve.
Uxbal visits a lady who reads his future and reminds him that he has a gift (the one alluded to at the beginning of the movie). One of the notable points in the movie is when his daughter misspells the word beautiful, hence the title of the movie.
As Uxbal’s health fails, he entrusts the safety and well-being of his children to the wife of the African seller who was deported. It’s an unsatisfactory arrangement but the only one that appears plausible for him at that time.
Closure is brought about when Uxbal goes to the forest and finally meets his father. An owl traverses a stretch of land from one tree top to another.
The movie integrates elements of existentialism. Uxbal appears to question the meaning of his life, and those of others.
In some respects the movie opens a pandora’s box of questions to be asked. For example, Are the allusions to the supernatural simply background noise or a clever distraction?
More importantly, perhaps, What lessons we can learn from this movie?
Life, as are ascribed roles is complicated, relationships are typically fleeting, as is the meaning and purpose of life.
How is this lesson told?
It’s communicated through Uxbal’s struggles. Many people, especially men and fathers would have given up, and abdicated their ascribed roles and responsibilities. Uxbal, on the other hand, has a strong sense of compassion. He’s able to step outside of himself and see the discomfort and pain of others. Uxbal wants to do what he can (even if it’s a relatively small gesture) to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. And in this regard we have respect for his struggle and those of others who are in similar situations.