In the case, the festivities take place in Barcelona, where a kind of benevolent human trafficker, Uxbal (Javaier Bardem), struggles to take care of his immigrant charges while tending to his children, the latter prospect complicated by the unpredictable presence of Marambra (Marciel Alvarez), the bi-polar mother. Add to this long-ignored prostate cancer metastisizing throughout Uxbal's body, the first indication of which is bloody urine we see splashing into his toilet one morning. Medical confirmation and a grim prognosis follow. Altogether, it's a life that anyone would find difficult to manage, much less a dying man enduring chemotherapy. None-the less, Inarritu and co-writers Armanda Bo and Nicoloas Giacobone etend Uxbal's considerable burdens beyond those of the physical world. More on that to come.
While Biutiful plays out entirely in Barcelona, it's not the Cataluynan capital of tourists and well-to-do Spainards. Only occasionally do familiar sights come into view: the towers and attendant construction cranes of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia seen at a distance, drained of their minimal color, over a sea of drab rooftops; a pursuit African immigrants by police spills onto Las Ramblas. The Africans, particularly one Senegalese man, Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), are some of the immigrants for whom Uxbal attempts to find work. Elsewhere in the dingy periphery of the city are about 20 Chinese men, women and children who sleep in a locked basement room, awakened at 6:30 each morning by the buzz and stark splash of florescent light, before another long day of work in a sweatshop or at a construction site. Uxbal befriends one of the Chinese women, Liwei, who sometimes watches his children along with her own child.
Our man Uxbal is something of a contemporary Virgil, leading us into a Barcelona underworld. One of the very impressive things about Mr. Inarritu's film is how believably every aspect of that world is revealed. The crampt living spaces, the second-hand clothes, the cold negotations in human lives. It's all credibly and seamlessly brought to life in a variety of grimy urban locations by a host of actors, professional and non-professional alike.
Most all of Uxbal's harried efforts, however dubious, are performed for the sake of his two children, Mateo and Ana. Their family life - meals, daily routines, communication - is a ragged and largely improvised affair. While the mere premise of the kindly trafficker in immigrant labor might strain one's credibility, Uxbal is neither written nor portrayed in saintly fashion. We see him lose patience with Mateo during one dinner. The son, looking like a miniature of the father with a choppy mullet of hair, offends with his table manners, or lack thereof. Uxbal angrily sends him away. But when the two meet in the hall late one night after Mateo has wet himself, Uxbal embraces him. As his condition worsens, Uxbal will have cause for empathy with his son's lack of bladder control.
The various scenes of family life demonstrate that, as a writer and director, Mr. Inarritu can work a tone other than grim. As the family moves on in its shambolic way, the mood is bleak at times but light-hearted at others. There is a semblance of a happy family meal during a period when the mother, Marambra, has been brought back into the family fold, against Uxbal's better judgement. It's a good scene, not only because the group actually seem an imperfect but loving family with a shared history, but because it offers a respite to the waves of adversity that beset them and seemingly everyone else with whom we become familiar in Biutiful.
To a point, Biutiful succeeds. There is an admirable compassion for Uxbal, a man trying to do his best, much as that involves exploiting the illegal immigrants with whom he deals. He might argue that they receive better wages, he actually purchases space heaters for that basement room in which the group of Chinese sleep and work, but he still derives an income from their plight. But he does possess a humanity that most everyone around him with any power seems to lack. Uxbal does attempt to bring some civilization to his uncivilized world. The film's compassion and sympathy extend a further rung down the rickety ladder to the immigrant population of Barcelona. It's worthwhile for any of us watching the film to consider what goes on in the great cities of the world, be they abroad or home, while we sanguinely go about our routines. The non-professionals in the cast, especially Diaryatou Daff, who who plays Ige, the Senegalese wife of Ekweme, add their own air of truth to the proceedings. Ms. Daff was apparently "found" while cutting hair in a Barcelona salon.
All well and good. Had Mr Inarritu brought his film home in, say, 100 minutes, one could leave the theater more mindful of its valid and important points. By this time, a dark, complicated world has been elucidated. The story of a man slogging through that world, trying to provide for his children much as he can before his impending death has staked its claim on our sympathies. But wait, there's much, much more.
And alas, poor Uxbal. Not only do you have to carry this extra weight of guilt owing to the Chinese dead as you trudge about your rounds in a body wracked with cancer. You have to see them as well. He sees dead people. Really. An early scene in Biutiful has him visiting what turns out to be a wake for three boys. Alone in the room with the three young men laid out in coffins, Uxbal sees the ghost of one sitting on the opposite side of the room, before repeatedly intoning, "Still are your lashes, and so is your heart," over one of the bodies, presumably that of the restless spirit. That particular spirit takes a rather prim, conventional position, merely sitting in a chair. Many of the dead with unfinished business cling to or crawl along ceilings, as if no longer subject to gravity. Such images are effectively creepy, but would seem to belong to another film, perhaps one by Guillermo del Toro.
Like his main character, Uxbal, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seems to mean well. But as Uxbal finds himself trafficking in the bodies of desperate souls, Mr. Inarritu has become an agent in their pathos. The scene may change from film to film, but the grim mood persists. When suffering is presented in such a manner and in such an amount so as to desensitize an audience to the very pain that is being highlighted, whom does the parade of misfortune really serve?