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STUDIO: Roadside Attractions
RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes
- Behind Biutiful
- Cast and Crew interviews
- Theatrical Trailer
- Lionsgate Trailers
In case Dancer in the Dark is too cheery…
Written and Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Acted by Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernandez, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff, Cheng Tai Shen and Luo Jin.
Uxbal (Bardem) is a middleman between sweatshop owners, the Asian illegals he has sewing the products and the Nigerian illegals selling the products as unlicensed street vendors in Barcelona, Spain. As he tries to balance the weight of being a hard man with being a kind man, he finds out he has terminal cancer, only allowing him a few months to put things in order for his two young children. He spends his final days doing whatever he can to scrape money together to leave for his kids while also working on his side job: communing with the recently dead who aren’t able to leave our plain of existence. We watch Uxbal’s final days on Earth as he tries to leave the world a little better than he found it, while still handling his business and making enough paper to provide his family with something, anything. Biutiful is simultaneously a morality play, a character study and a meditation on death and all the damage we leave behind.
My Grandfather had a stroke last year and has been living with my parents ever since. He can’t really talk anymore but he smiles and makes some noises that can let us know whether he wants a bowl of ice cream or to use the bathroom and he also has some limited use of his legs to putt around with. He hangs out on the couch most days, watching DVR’ed episodes of Gunsmoke and Bonanza and seems really happy to be letting someone else take care of him for a change. Two days ago he had a bout of seizures while he was sleeping and has woken with all mobility and ways of communication lost. His living will expressly forbids him being put in a hospital, so he’s going to spend what is probably the last week of his life sitting on my parent’s couch, watching old westerns and smiling. Bardem’s character in Biutiful, Uxbal, is going to spend his last days cleaning up messes that his job creates and scrounging every penny he can for his family. Watching this movie at the same time as seeing my Grandfather fade away started making me think about whether it’s better to live a full life and die with absolutely no control over your own circumstances or whether it’s better to go out at a younger age while you can at least die with a shred of dignity intact. Burn out, fade away, that sort of stuff.
Biutiful isn’t interested in examining that question or any of the other big questions surrounding mortality and the afterlife. Instead, it’s content to tell the tale of one extremely flawed man’s baby steps towards redemption in an attempt to escape the misery he has created for himself and his family. Uxbal basically makes his living off of the miserable human lives in a sweatshop, sewing knockoff purses to give to other miserable human lives to sell on the street. He cares about the workers, though. When the single room where all the workers live (about 30 or so) starts getting too cold at night, he buys a few heaters and installs them at his own expense. When one of the guys who sells the purses on the street gets arrested and deported, he takes the man’s wife and baby into his home and attempts to take care of them. Yet, while all of this is happening he gets the news that he has terminal cancer and will probably only live for another month. Instead of retreating into a frightened shell and feeling sorry for himself, he starts working twice as hard and attempting to help others more than ever before. The movie is content with keeping Uxbal’s history a secret, so we never know if all of his goodwill towards those he basically feeds off of is due to his feelings of mortality and a need to do penance or whether he’s always been a fairly benevolent grifter. It’s a beautiful ambiguity.
Just a few weeks ago I reviewed a movie called Red Road that I trashed because it was basically misery porn without characters you cared enough about to be invested in and, since it was shot Dogme 95 style, it all felt too clinical to be transportive like it was aiming for. Biutiful dodges that bullet successfully, but by a very narrow margin. After two full hours of the film (where you keep telling yourself it can’t get any worse and then the bottom drops out to a whole new level of hell) you start to feel like you must be watching a comedy because no one’s life could be this bad. The film eventually hit a point where I told myself that if one more bit of misery happened to poor Javi then me and Biutiful were through professionally, but it eventually evens out and becomes a more balanced tale of life’s many tragedies instead of a neverending slog of heartache and suffering. Also, you really do empathize with Uxbal and his many trials, so you become emotionally invested in his story instead of clinically detached and chilly while witnessing all the suffering like I did with Red Road.
The performances are astounding across the board with Javier Bardem giving not only the performance of his career, but what was easily the best performance of that year by anyone (I’m looking at you, Colin Firth). Newcomer Maricel Álvarez is a revelation as Uxbal’s estranged wife and mother to his children. He kicked her out a year earlier because her bi-polar disorder was becoming too self destructive for the kids to be around and Alvarez plays that balance of maternal longing for her children and flighty narcissism with a grace that is breathtaking to witness. The other standout for me is Diaryatou Daff as the wife of one of Uxbal’s workers who gets deported. It’s not a showy role or performance but an understated one, filled with powerful moments of silence and thousand yard stares that could freeze the sun. Daff is not an actress, but a street person that Iñárritu found while casting the film and I think her naivete to the acting craft helped mold one of the finest performances in the film.
My biggest fear for the film was the supernatural segments and whether they would be blended organically into the film as a whole. The dead in the film are genuinely scary at times and in the hands of an American studio this might have been marketed as a thriller instead of a drama. For a large chunk of the film’s mammoth running time it’s hard to see where all of the ghosts and spirits will fit in, but if you give the film your patience it will reward you with something haunting (heh) and lovely without ever resorting to faux sentimentality or gimmickry to make it come together.
Honestly, I think the only complaint I have about the film is that at 148 minutes, the length is a bit punishing, yet on retrospect I can’t think of anything I would have cut from the film. Every single moment seems to add to the texture of this world that Inarritu has developed and populated with some of the finest actors imaginable. All of the beauty blooming from horror creates a lovely dichotomy that rests gently in the back of your mind long after the credits roll. Just be sure you’re in the mood for something difficult that will require you to do a bit of heavy lifting. If you come into this film half-heartedly then it will be a trial to get through instead of a triumph. The more I think about it the more I like it and the more I want to share it with everyone I can. That’s the best recommendation I can give it other than to say I think my Grandfather would have loved it. Even though he hates subtitles.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars