Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Journey to the End of the Night - ‘Biutiful’ reviewed

From the upcoming edition of the Catholic Key, Santiago Ramos’ review of Oscar-nominated ‘Biutiful’. The picture is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and lead Javier Bardem is up for Best Actor.

Journey to the End of the Night

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella

By Santiago Ramos

In an interview appearing in Deadline Hollywood, Javier Bardem confessed that he had hesitated before accepting director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s offer to play the leading role of Uxbal in Biutiful: “I read [the script] like three times in a row before I said yes. Because I knew that what he was proposing to me was not a performance. [He] was proposing me a life journey.”

biutiful This film is more like an end of life journey. Uxbal lives in relative poverty in present-day Barcelona, where he raises two children and serves as a middleman in the criminal underground, dealing between a sweatshop of Chinese immigrants who make counterfeit Gucci handbags and DVDs, and the West African immigrants who sell them illegally on the street. His estranged wife (Marambra, played by Maricel Álvarez) has lost custody of her children; she suffers from manic depression. He himself is told early on in the film that he is dying from cancer.

No wonder Bardem hesitated. Yet his attempt to embody the torment which Iñárritu sets up as a premise to the film is mostly successful. Uxbal walks as if every step he takes were towards Golgotha, and his visage is creased and drooping downward. But he can also smile, and Bardem grasps the fact that even someone in Uxbal’s situation would bear more than one emotion in his soul over the course of a day. Bardem captures the life. But the journey is another matter.

The journey consists of every action Uxbal takes as he negotiates between trying to care for his children—and leaving them some financial support before he dies—and brokering deals between criminals. The more he suffers from his illness, the more Uxbal develops a moral conscience: It’s not enough, he seems to think, to work for my children. I should try to do something good for them, and for others.

But Uxbal’s motivations are polluted by his profession; he is a big link in a chain of criminality, and he is enchained by it. He tells Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), one of the West African vendors, not to sell anything on this street, but to sell it at that one, where there is a tacit agreement with the cops and where he won’t get caught. Ekweme doesn’t listen, and he and his friends are chased and arrested by the cops; they spend some nights in jail, along with Uxbal, who bears some of the fault for being part of the illegal commerce in the first place. But it is also unclear whether Ekweme was also selling dope.

The lack of clarity engulfs every action, every decision, and for this reason it seems flawed that the film casts Uxbal as a hero from the very beginning. We are told to admire him before we are given reasons to admire him. The closest we come to outright disliking him is after the central tragedy of the film, when Uxbal tries to make an act of charity for the sweatshop of Chinese laborers making the Gucci handbags. Uxbal has already been negotiating for the Chinese with a contractor who needs construction workers and would rather not pay union wages. At least it would get the workers out in open air. And in the night, it gets very cold where they are forced to sleep—he could buy them some heaters.

To say any more would break the “No Spoilers” pact, and it is difficult to evaluate Biutiful without doing so, because its success as a tragedy rests on how Uxbal reacts to the tragedy which he has…witnessed. (Or endured? Or caused?) I can only say this: someone who has gone through what Uxbal has gone through would fret about it for longer than Uxbal does in the final acts of the film. The script forces him to move on to other things and artificially lightens the load on his conscience. In a film which until now has, if nothing else, forced the viewer to look at brutal suffering and injustice which is actually taking place just around the corner, it is an aesthetic letdown to have Uxbal visit a New Agey-spiritual guru woman and have her tell him, “It’s OK,” as she hugs him and caresses his face.

I am convinced that Uxbal vists Bea—the New Agey spiritual guru, played by Ana Wagener—only for the hugs, because he never takes anything she says seriously. Not that she says serious things. Mostly, she utters quasi-pious nostrums about acceptance of death, life after death, and the value of modern medicine. (“No Bea, no…” he disagrees with her, and then takes the hug.) Yet it doesn’t matter that what she says sounds trite. The fact that she is confronting him with these claims means that there is a question he must face.

That question goes beyond merely leaving a nest and a legacy for his kids, and beyond trying to force justice to break into the series of exploitative relationships that he is a part of. The question is whether Uxbal’s life is worth living, whether it still is, despite everything, in some way, beautiful. The film does not support its own weight: it forces a sentimental conclusion by depicting Uxbal’s memories, and the sound of a child’s whisper in the silence. There is no way one can hear a child’s whisper breaking silence without feeling something warm inside. But Uxbal’s predicament calls for more than warm feelings.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.