There are so many reviews for this film, because it is in official competition in Cannes and up for a best foreign Academy Award and best actor Oscar, that I can’t really direct you to any in particular reviews this time that stand out, but of course here I’m going to talk differently a little bit about the film Biutiful, less about Javier Bardem as a fantastic actor, which he is, no doubt about that, and more about the incredible cultural elements diffused throughout this feature by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Inarritu). In fact, I was a bit surprised by the number of negative reviews of the film, which I found exceptionally well made with only one instance of a “yep, I could see that coming a mile off” moment in the plot. Overall, it was stylishly and beautifully photographed, excellently acted by all the cast, many who were not professionals, and very touching in story-line.
Bardem plays Uxbal, the main protagonist of this film who is surrounded by a host of other protagonists without whom the story could not be the intertwined headlong fateful fall that it soon becomes. He is first a father, having sole custody of his 10 year old daughter and younger son, struggling to bring them up, get them to school on time, have good food on the table, have after-school care, all the normal worries of a parent in the modern world. But more, because Uxbal doesn’t have your average employment—he’s living on the margins of society, trying to bring up his kids in relative poverty, doing his best to juggle his multiple responsibilities to bring in money and to care for his children. Soon, to add dis-ease to the equation, Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, given at most a couple of months to live.
He worries about leaving his children without a reliable parent, as their mother is both bipolar and irresponsible, not someone he can comfortably turn them over to, and his brother is an equally irresponsible selfish fellow who couldn’t raise them, and there is no other family. Worse, he had been fatherless himself since his father died while his mother was pregnant, something that bothered him his entire life, which he does not want to perpetuate upon his own children—and his own mother had died while he was quite young, leaving him no real family to grow within. What fate will his children meet when he dies? It is inspiring to see a film in which a male figure actually wholeheartedly takes on fatherly duties and loves his children—too often we only see representations of men who abandon their children carelessly. Uxbal is hyper-responsible in parenting, though at times he loses his temper with his son who is, like many a child, an irrepressible button-pusher.
Uxbal’s work and role entails functioning as a go-between among several sources—a Chinese man who imports illegal Chinese laborers who either work illegally at construction sites, or manufacture knock-off handbags and CDs/DVDs that illegal African immigrants sell on sidewalks in the posher areas of town; Uxbal is responsible for paying off the cops to look the other way while the Africans ply their wares on the streets illegally; he also is responsible for trying to convince the Africans that they are condoned to sell illegally in only certain districts, whereas they continue to taunt fate by selling downtown, and add drug selling as a sideline; Uxbal also acts as a go-between for the recently departed (dead) who communicate through him to their families—although sometimes the families don’t want to hear what he has to say to them; when one of his African contacts is deported Uxbal takes it upon himself to make sure his wife and baby are not left homeless and penniless when evicted from their tenement rooms; and in a large sense Uxbal acts as go-between for his own ex-wife and children, trying to reconcile with his wife and then trying to soften the story of her insanity and addictions when the children ask where she’s disappeared to when the reconciliation busts apart. All these roles take a toll on Uxbal, especially since he is not a miracle worker, but a regular man struggling to do right in a path of wrong. Of course his job is wrong and illegal, but it exists in reality, someone has to or will do it, and he tries to be “good”, such as worrying about the laborers’ welfares and well-beings, even going so far as to spend money to buy them heaters for the basement in which they are locked en masse every night. Of course, nothing goes right for the man.
The Chinese labor importer, Hai, doesn’t want to pay the police; the Africans don’t want to sell only in the permitted area; the police want to make an example of the Africans and crack down on them and deport quite a few even though they’ve been paid off to look the other way; the heaters Uxbal buys for the basement are faulty and of course asphyxiate all the laborers trapped there over night; Uxbal’s rapprochement with his wife goes terribly wrong and he ends up moving back to his apartment, this time also inhabited by Ige, the wife of one of the deported sellers. In fact, it seems nothing Uxbal tries to do can work out. Mostly, he struggles on, fueled by the need to save some cash to take care of his children when he dies. That overwhelming need keeps him going day after day, even when he’s reduced to wearing adult diapers because he can’t control urinating on himself. In fact, this lack of control over his bodily functions is synonymous with his lack of control over events in his life.
Most interesting in the film is the margins of society described here. This is not Barcelona of tourism and photo essays, this is the seedy side streets, the dingy apartments and warehouses, the claustrophobic tiny spaces in which individuals struggle to carve a niche for themselves. Chinese immigrants suffer trying to gain a foothold in a new society, and are exploited by the Chinese who brought them to Spain who hold the attitude that no matter how badly they are treated it is better than being in China. The workers exist crammed into a barren cement basement to sleep, locked in over night lest they escape, awoken at 6:30 am to start work either in the sweatshop upstairs or in construction where they don’t really know what they are doing. Uxbal’s wife is a lost soul, wandering between her addictions to drugs and alcohol and her bipolar rants and on the other hand her desperate need to reclaim her husband and children and make the family work again—but she can’t help herself from doing wrong as well. When Uxbal is out working, she leaves the kids alone as she goes out to party, she beats her son for going to the fridge with wet feet which she fears will electrocute him, then catches him smoking and sets his bed on fire and throws it into the street, and even leaves him alone in the apartment while she takes her daughter away for a birthday celebration overnight because he’s wet the bed. She just can’t be a responsible parent no matter how much she loves her husband or children. So Uxbal leaves her after trying the reconciliation, hoping she’d recovered, but finding in the end that she’s like everyone else around him, spiraling out of control downward.
Hai, the Chinese labor lord, is also shown to be reluctant to pay off the police in a timely manner, also reluctant to pay Uxbal the money owed for his services, and then listens to his boyfriend who takes a hard line on the treatment of the laborers and Uxbal. When the Chinese laborers all die of asphyxiation, Hai turns over to his boyfriend the handling of the bodies—which are taken out to sea and dumped, which spells disaster as the bodies all wash ashore and of course Hai’s operation is raided and his family arrested—somehow he escapes but either he murders his boyfriend or the boyfriend commits suicide—it is unclear. He warns Uxbal to tidy up all loose ends. For Uxbal, tidying up the loose ends really entails making peace with the dead as he feels completely responsible for their deaths, buying cheap heaters so he can pocket more of the money on his own. He can’t really reconcile with the dead Chinese, but he can reconcile with his own demise.
Uxbal helps Ige by giving her his apartment when her husband is deported and she’s evicted, but he winds up going back to the apartment himself with the kids, which he then shares with her and her baby, depending on her more and more as he falls more ill. In the end, he’s completely dependent on Ige, in a sense forcing her to become surrogate mother to his children because their biological mother is in a treatment center and unavailable, and he’s dying. At first she starts by cooking, then taking the kids to school, then she’s medicating Uxbal, cleaning him, and finally he gives her all his cash and says she’s got to take care of the children—the money is enough to pay the rent for years and pay for other expenses too. Ige is put in a difficult situation because she really wants to return to Senegal to her husband, and in fact packs her belongings and goes off to the train station. Later, however, she returns, and Uxbal, passing on his mother’s diamond wedding ring to his daughter, can let go and die. Everything has unraveled by now: the Chinese laborers are dead, the Africans are deported, the police crack down on the labor importer and even the police who were paid off are no longer complicit. The wife is gone to a rehab center. In essence, there’s really no other option for Uxbal than to let go and traverse to the other world that he knows is waiting, death not being an end but a transition.
This is another interesting component of the film—the family. Uxbal didn’t grow up in a “traditional” family, and in a sense considers his charges—the Chinese and Africans—to be part of his extended “non-traditional” family, which is why he takes on responsibility of Ige when her husband is deported. And why he depends on Ige when dying. He must leave his children with someone—she’s it by force of circumstance. And she accepts it because she also cannot have a traditional family in Spain, with her husband deported and unable to make ends meet on her own with a small child to care for. There is no reason that circumstances can’t create a family when the biological family bonds are rent asunder. And the children slowly but surely accept Ige as surrogate parent, as she slowly but surely accepts her new role as their mother.
Another interesting facet of this film is that it treats marginalized characters, which in this era of economic turmoil and globalization, means quite a lot of people. Too many films only deal with the wealthy or middle class, and eschew the poor, the marginal, those struggling to make ends meet any way they can. This entire film is about the marginal, the underclass, the foundation of societies all over the world, people with real problems that meet real bad endings all the time. Perhaps because I’ve been poor, with little recourse, and known quite a lot of very poor people, this film really resonated with me and made every character’s story poignant, not just Uxbal’s, though he was the central unifying agent of the story about a plethora of struggling individuals, whether fiscally, emotionally, mentally, or socially. Of course, Uxbal dies, unlike many unfortunates, with money saved to care for his children, even if it is in an unorthodox family—whereas not so many individuals are so lucky or crafty as he. However, the film is well worth watching, just take your handkerchief.