The Scorched Souls of Biutiful

Alice Gregory | February 17, 2011
Javiar Bardem plays a manager of black market immigrant workers in "Biutful."

Even the most spice-tolerant gourmand will tell you that excess heat can obliterate subtle seasoning. And like a too-generous sprinkle of chili powder, overabundant pathos can be dulling. All the sadness starts to taste the same. In Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first feature film since Babel, the emotional intensity is cranked maybe a bit too high. Two-and-a-half hours is a long time to heave, and by the end you’re scorched to the point of numbness.

Javiar Bardem plays Uxbal, a struggling manager of black market immigrant workers — Chinese laborers who sleep on factory floors and the African street vendors who peddle their purses. He’s dying of prostate-turned-bone-tuned-liver cancer, which makes him pee blood and fall to his knees in pain. His ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) is a bipolar “masseuse,” who carries on with his brother, drinks too much wine, and hits the children. Young Ana and Mateo — both grade school-age — are constantly caught up in their parents’ battles.

Bardem’s presence, as always, is imposing and just soft enough. He walks the dusky alleys in a crumpled leather jacket: head down, hands in pockets. He has a ponytail, which is unfortunate, because Bardem, it turns out, is one of those men on whom a ponytail looks inevitable. It will be hard to imagine him without one from now on. Scene in and scene out, Uxbal appears as an animated Moai, the streetlights illuminating his monolithic profile. His impending death adds delicacy to all his gestures; his hands, for instance, look spidery, and he hugs his daughter tenderly.

Uxbal’s Barcelona is mostly underground or cramped — in the apartments of the poor. His is a city far from the lapping beaches; it has nothing to do with fancy tapas bars or Gaudí’s surrealist skyline. In the Barcelona Uxbal knows, the police are paid off, and the karaoke bars remain empty; the cereal is soggy, and the ceilings leak. The plaster walls might be vividly colored, but they’re stained. People live too close together. Contracting disease, being tainted with corruption — these things seem unavoidable.

In a way, it’s commendable that we’re never given a reprieve from the dirt and despondency. In literature and film, death and dying are often presented as concepts irreconcilable with daily life, too immense and abstract to fully fathom. Cancer, in particular, is commonly conceived of as foreign, some invasion of the body from without. But here, cancer feels totally destined. The nastiness is native.

But MRIs and morphine injections aside, Uxbal still has business to attend to. He must sell his long-dead father’s cemetery niche and ensure that the Chinese factory workers aren’t abused, though a certain amount of ill-treatment seems par for the course. When his African vendors face deportation, it’s Uxbal who negotiates their terms, and it’s he who is responsible for their wives when they are indeed sent back home to Senegal. Uxbal tries to do right by his disadvantaged workers, but he still needs a cut, and it’s this desperation that finally leads to unintentional, mass tragedy — a poorly handled, gruesome disaster that turns into national news.

By observing so many low levels of social strata, we’re meant not ask who is exploiting whom (though it’s a valid question) so much as understand the plausibility of liability and innocence in equal measure. Everyone’s at fault, which paradoxically, means no one is.

Biutiful is framed with an oneiric — and frankly, pat — circular narrative structure. It’s too easy to anticipate, even while it makes little sense. The meat of the movie is stunningly sad, literally though — it stuns you into an uncomplicated woe. Toward the end, Uxbal, Mateo, and Ige (the wife of a deported African vendor), gather around the kitchen table to celebrate Ana’s tenth birthday. She’s presented with a flickering cake. “Make a wish, Sweetie,” Uxbal urges her, smiling. And here we’re bludgeoned yet again, because no wish — short of an entirely different life — could possibly be worth hoping for.