Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenwriter: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Runtime: 147 mins.
Australian release date: 24 March 2011
The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, when using a musical analogy, referred to his previous film Babel as an opera, and his current film Biutiful, as a requiem. The main thread throughout this tragic drama is the realisation of the brevity of life, when we discover that we are close to death. Uxbal (Javier Bardem), in one of his best performances to date (and there have been many), is a conflicted man who is caught up in the underworld of modern Barcelona while struggling to do the right thing by his two young children, knowing that he is knocking on heaven’s door as terminal cancer takes over his body.
Iñárritu has set his film in one of the little-known neighbourhoods of Barcelona, Santa Coloma, an area occupied by a diverse group of nationalities. It is a place that harbors poor immigrants from Africa and Asia, many of whom are illegal, who flock there to seek some kind of living while endeavouring to help those they left behind in their home countries. Bardem’s character is a ‘Charnego,’ one of the 10% of native Castilian-speaking people who live in the area, growing up and working with the diverse group of immigrants who live there.
He is a man of the street who has a spiritual gift that enables him to speak to the recently deceased and thus help the living. The irony is that, while able to help others, he cannot help himself when he becomes overwhelmed by the tragic circumstances in which he is enmeshed: these include a loving but desperate situation in caring for his kids, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) and Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib); trying to support a wayward wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), who is bipolar; and coping with a brother, Tito (Eduard Fernandez), who is a wheeler-dealer who takes advantage of the desperate immigrants in the area; and, of course, his on-going battle with prostate cancer.
Biutiful does not let up for an instant and, running at 147 minutes, you are certainly put through the wringer as you follow Uxbal in his struggle to reconcile fatherhood, love, spirituality, crime, guilt and his impending demise. Bardem is perfectly cast as he vacillates between being a shadowy ‘fixer’ and a man of great compassion. This compassion is put to the test, not only in his love and concern for his kids and his fragile wife, but also for an immigrant worker Ige (Diaryatou Daff), a Senegalese woman who is left behind when her husband is deported. She is just one of the many characters who were played by non-actors and had parallel lives to the world of the film.
This is a very different side of Barcelona to the one we usually see, grittily shot by long-time Iñárritu collaborator Rodrigo Prieto, and tensely edited by the Oscar-winning Stephen Mirrione. It is far from the tourist images which you may have experienced. According to Alvarez, it is “… a place of many contrasts - where reality is sometimes like a punch in the face, brutal and raw and also sometimes very beautiful.”