Rated R. Our Ratings: V-5;L -6; S/N -4 Running time: 2 hour 18 min.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God,
the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows
in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a bottom feeder in the underworld of Barcelona. His Barcelona is not the city known to tourists—we catch just a glimpse of the Gaudi-designed Cathedral, far off on the horizon. In the trash and homeless-littered alleys of his part of the great city Uxbal is far from being “unstained” by his grubby world. He is not a good man according to the law, but he is a decent one, when judged by a higher law. He has custody of his 10 year-old daughter Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and 7 year-old son Mateo (Guillermo Etrella) because his former wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) has bipolar disorder and is addicted to alcohol and drugs. She pays for her habits by occasionally selling the use of her body.
Uxbal escorts the children to school most days and after school leaves them with a Chinese mother named Lily. She is part of a team of illegal immigrants working in a sweatshop toiling at the task of making the knock-offs of Gucci purses and other designer wares bought from street vendors by tourists naïve enough to think they are getting a bargain.
Uxbal is also a spiritual man who is able to communicate with the dead for a brief time after death, and so he receives a small part of his income when a relative will ask him to speak with a deceased person at a funeral parlor. Indeed, the puzzling scene that opens the film before its title is of this nature. In a snow shrouded woods Uxbal meets a younger man. Only late in the film will we come to know the man’s identity and his significance to Uxbal.
Uxbal partners with two Japanese merchants in the shady enterprise of which the sweatshop is a part. They bring in illegal Chinese workers for their small factory, and the Spaniard supervises the basement dorm where they crowd together on floor mats to sleep at night. Uxbal really does care for them, worrying that the cold nights in the unheated basement is unhealthy for them. He also manages the crew of Africans hawking the knock-offs in a public square, and he pays a police officer for “protection.” However, the deal with the police does not cover the vendors selling drugs, so Uxbal sternly warns Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye) their foreman to stop the drug sales. When the Africans pay him no heed, the police turn out in force, rounding up the sellers and Uxbal as well. From jail he has to call Marambra to take care of the children. He is soon bailed out of jail by his brother Tito (Eduard Fernández), who runs a prosperous strip joint filled with naked dancers.
Uxbal has a secret that he does not share at first with anyone. He has been passing blood in his urine, and when he finally goes to a doctor, the diagnosis is prostate cancer. With but a couple of months of activity left to him, he wants to set things up for the welfare of his children. He and Marambra have come back together for a while, but even though matters go well at first, he knows that she will not be able to provide a stable home, both because of her illness and her trade of prostitution. He also wants to help the Chinese immigrants, and Lily and her infant daughter in particular, but his plan to purchase a number of electric heaters to keep them warm at night goes terribly awry, leaving him now with a wrenching sense of guilt.
I realize that this terse description sounds like a subtitled soap opera, and in the hands of a lesser director and cast, it might have become one. This Job-like story, though extreme, is not just a soap opera however. It is a story set in a poisonous environment created by the human exploitation of the less fortunate. The almost exclusive use of hand-held cameras draws us close to the characters and makes us feel the chaos of such scenes as that of the police raid on the vendors. Just as Uxbal is never still, having so much to do before he dies, so the photographed scenes are never still, but always shifting. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who collaborated with two others in writing the screenplay, has explored human loss, pain, and connectedness in his previous films Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros, but in no more moving way than here. Few films have shown a father’s love for his children as well as this one. Javier Bardem, with those soulful eyes, is at the peak of his acting career. No matter how you spell it, Biutiful is a beeyoutiful film!
For reflection/Discussion There are spoilers near the end of this set of questions.
1. How would you describe Uxbal to someone who has not seen the film? Perhaps as an extreme example of Luther’s “sinning saint” ? Compare him to the flawed protagonists of Graham Greene’s novels—The End of the Affair; The Power and the Glory; or The Heart of the Matter.
2. Were you puzzled by the episodes shown just before the film’s title?
3. Tito is more prosperous than his brother, but how does he compare morally?
4. How does Uxbal’s relationship with his children define him? How does even the film’s title show this? That is, where does the title come from? (Remember the scene of him helping his daughter with her spelling?) How is his bringing his ex-wife back into contact with them a part of this?
5. How does he both exploit and help the Chinese and African workers? How is he similar to some of the characters in the film Crash?
6. How did you feel when his plan to better the lives of the Chinese workers ended in disaster? Have you seen and experienced other (though maybe not as dire) instances of good intentions ending badly?
7. What do you make of Bea, who seems to be Uxbal’s spiritual mentor? How do her words, “We receive this gift for free, and that is how we should use it,” explain why he is so reluctant to accept payment from the relatives who ask him to contact a recently deceased loved one?
8. When Uxbal helps Ige, whose husband is about to be deported back to their native Senegal, how is his kind act like the Scriptural “cast your bread upon the waters” ?
9. If you are familiar with the films of Akira Kurasawa, you might compare this film with one of his about a man preparing for his death, Ikiru. (It is interesting that one of the production companies partnering in the film’s production is named Ikiru Films.)
10. How is Uxbal’s death in keeping with the film’s title? Although he works almost frantically to set things in order for the welfare of his children, do you think that he fears death? How is death a freeing up of this Job-like man? In the light of Matthew 25:34, what do you think God will say to him at Judgment Day?