How Do You Spell Biutiful?

Biutiful will most likely turn out to be one of the best Oscar nominated films that most people will not get to see in theaters. That it is a foreign language film (shot in Barcelona by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) relegates it to mainly art house theaters and a few multiplexes in larger cities. It’s a shame because most viewers will have to wait until the DVD to view one of the year’s best performances and the small screen will rob the effectiveness of much of Rodrigo Prieto‘s cinematography. Nevertheless, like all of Inarritu’s films, Biutiful offers layer upon layer of opportunities for moral, ethical, and theological reflection.

Biutiful closely follows (the handheld camera always seems to be just over the character’s shoulder or directly in front of his face) Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a mid-level “criminal” of sorts who is involved in everything from the purchase and sale of counterfeit goods to the smuggling and employment of illegal immigrants. His main contacts in this “criminal underworld” are two Chinese men who help smuggle in workers and either put them to work in sweatshops or construction, a Spanish contractor who hires the Chinese workers as cheap labor, the Senegalese immigrants who sell the counterfeit goods, and of course the countless immigrants themselves. Though the film focuses on two communities, this isn’t Uxbal’s first rodeo. Uxbal cares about both the Senegalese and Chinese pawns in this game, but make no mistake, he is out to get his too, especially when he learns that he is dying of cancer and only has a couple of months to live. He begins setting his affairs in order, i.e. making and storing away enough money to provide for his two young children after he passes away. He’s especially worried about them because he knows he cannot rely on their mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez in her first role), a bi-polar, drug and alcohol addled part-time masseuse. As if all of this weren’t enough, he can also communicate with the spirits of the recently deceased, and some members of his community even pay him to do so. As with Matt Damon’s character in Hereafter this seems to be more of a curse than a blessing, especially when a tragedy strikes the group of Chinese workers for whom he attempted to provide some relief.

To call this relationship strained is a gross understatement.

There are four, among many, high points to this film: Bardem and Alvarez’s performances as Uxbal and Marambra, Prieto’s cinematography, and Inarritu’s direction. The first is worth all of the praise that critics have heaped upon it. Not only is Bardem worthy of his Oscar nomination, but he should also win. Unlike the other actors that have been nominated in the category, this film presents him with a range of situations to which he must react and accompanying emotions that he must convey and Bardem hits every one of them out of the park. On the other hand, all of this praise has proven to be a bit of a distraction from Alvarez’s performance. This rookie actress holds her own against Bardem, much like Penelope Cruz did in Vicki Christina Barcelona. Prieto’s cinematography always keeps us close to Uxbal, both physically and emotionally, while at the same time keeping focus on the gritty, poverty-stricken surroundings in which he moves. Along with Inarritu’s direction, the two manage to visualize the experience of a dying man who can also communicate with the recently deceased in some gripping ways. Speaking of Inarritu, this time around he thankfully forgoes the intersecting narratives and instead focuses on one fairly linear story. He only betrays this by opening the film with the same scene with which he concludes it. This chronological break makes the conclusion even more effective.

As I have mentioned, there are many themes that viewers could focus on in a discussion of this film. One of its strengths, paralleling Prieto’s cinematography, is its ability to simultaneously focus on the broadly social and the intimately personal. Biutiful reminds us that “illegal immigration” isn’t just an “issue” in the United States. People all over the world are fleeing harsh conditions all over the world and seeking a better future in places all over the world. Again, I think the film encourages us to ask not only how do we embrace the neighbor that arrives at our doorstep but also what conditions have forced them to make that journey in the first place? In the film, economic opportunity is the explicit driving force, but Inarritu also hints at another force that may be on the horizon, environmental degradation.

Though these concerns remain at the forefront of the film, they are only strengthened by its more intimate depiction of the families who brave these journeys and ultimately get caught up in a system that exploits their desires for a better way of life. We see the ease with which governments can separate families and how corrupt officials only make the system even more inescapable. Although we might be tempted to view them as such, the Senegalese and Chinese immigrants in the film aren’t cardboard characters. Inarritu fleshes out some of these characters like Ige (Diaryatou Daff), Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), Li (Lang Sofia Lin), and Hai (Cheng Tai Shen) to show the decisions that they must make and the conditions they must endure to stay alive.

Uxbal teaches Ana how to spell "biutiful."

Yet there is no doubt that this film is about Uxbal. As such it is a much more complex scenario, and he becomes one of the more morally and ethically complex characters in recent film. There can be no denying that Inge, Lili, and their counterparts are the purely exploited, the most victimized victims in this world. Uxbal, however, is both victim and violator. He too has been trapped in the system, exploited by the very government officials that he bribes to keep the immigrants employed. Yet he also benefits from their labor as witnessed by the stacks of money he has stored throughout his apartment. True, he does care for the workers more than his Spanish and Chinese counterparts, but this concern only goes so far and, as I mentioned above, actually does more harm than good in one disturbing case.

In his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott briefly references the ways in which Inarritu presents Uxbal as a Christ-like figure, another cinematic man of sorrows, and the impact that this has on the narrative. He writes:

Mr. González Iñárritu does not have the stomach for the stringent moral and spiritual vision of authentically (or even experimentally) religious filmmakers like Carl Dreyer,Robert Bresson or the Dardenne brothers. Instead he traffics in a vague theology of uplift, wherein the road to an entirely abstract heaven is paved with noble instincts. The tension between this director’s methods and his intentions–between his exacting, sometimes amazing craft and his resolutely banal ideas—may ultimately be a problem of audience and genre. ‘Biutiful,’ like ‘Babel,’ looks more daring and more difficult than it is. But if Mr. González Iñárritu were, let’s say, to adapt a novel by Nicholas Sparks, whose views on love and morality are not ultimately all that different from his, the result might be a satisfying and surprising synthesis of styles: a feel-bad art film with an uplifting message for everyone. ‘Biutiful,’ come to think of it, is almost that, but not entirely in a good way.

Scott makes some interesting points here, but I think he goes too far and reads too much into this character. Sympathy is definitely cast with Uxbal, but this sympathy should only go so far. As I have said, he is out to get his, especially by the way he treats the Chinese managers, his own brother, and the Spanish contractor. He is far too much a part of the corrupt world in which he lives to be compared to a savior that rises above it. At the same time, I wonder if we have to read Inarritu’s arrival at a heavenly conclusion as the result of “noble instincts.” Has grace become a banal idea?

Scott was not the only one to notice the religious and theological implications of the film. In her review for Time, Mary Pols writes about Uxbal’s ability to communicate with the deceased, “This piece of magical realism seems to be Inarritu and his co-writers’ gift to us, their means of leavening the hardships of the rest of the movie. It is, if you will, the proviso they slip in our pockets (Nothing really ends, circle of life, and so forth). It’s a funny combination, this deeply gritty look at immigrant communities with the fanciful aspect of speaking to the dead. Whether it gives you solace may depend on your faith; perhaps Biutiful is, in the end, a film meant for true believers.” Again, I feel like another critic is missing the point, or perhaps her upper-middle class, first-world context has distracted from the point of the film. A deeply gritty look at immigrant communities with the fanciful aspect of speaking to the dead is not a funny combination. Instead, it might be not magical realism but reality. To me, this is not a strange thing given the deep religious commitment and spirituality that many of these immigrants might embrace. In the face of such oppression, the belief in and hope for an afterlife and the solace of communicating with the recently deceased (some of whom could have been fellow workers killed in a work-related incident) might just help them get through life. Making their way in this world might take more than they’ve got, and faith might be that extra ingredient.

Inarritu offers a hopeful conclusion, an abstract heaven as Scott calls it. If it is there for Uxball, it is most certainly there for Li and Ige. The question is, finally, whether or not it is there for us, the viewers and shoppers who thoughtlessly benefit from the systems that send these characters, and their real life counterparts, to their graves.

Biutiful (147 mins.) is in limited theatrical release and is rated R for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use.