Biutiful: Movie Night and Film Analysis by Daniel Ross

BiutifulThis Friday we will be showing a film by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s and starring Javier Bardem. It is González Iñárritu’s first feature since Babel and fourth overall, and his first film in his native Spanish language. The title Biutiful refers to the orthographical spelling in Spanish of the English word beautiful as it would sound to native Spanish speakers.  The spelling of the word sets the tone of the film which grounds us in the senses, not in the intellect. This is a story that has to be felt deeply and it is a rough road.  The director teaches us we are accustomed to films (particularly American) taking a stance in which good and evil is personified in characters and the good always prevails. This film asks us to see the complexity in people and that right and wrong and good and evil are part of the same whole.  This is a Jungian view of the world.

Biutiful is the story of Uxbal – a single father who struggles to reconcile fatherhood, love, spirituality, crime, guilt and mortality amid the dangerous underworld of modern Barcelona — all before his time is up. He must deal with his loving but unreliable, reckless, and bipolar wife (from whom he is separated and who poses a threat to the safety of their children), and a large group of illegal immigrants for whom he obtains material so that they may not be deported. In the middle of all of this, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, which he tries to hide from his two children.  His wife’s bipolarity is symbolic of this dichotomized view of the world we maintain.  There is synergy in the relationship.  Though they love each other very much however, Marambra his wife,  cannot spend too much time with the grounded Uxbal before she sinks into depression.  Uxbal carries the weight of the world but cannot have fun.  In fact his wife must carry that for the two of them.  So there lies the paradox, that which he needs in her, her lightness of being, he cannot bear because he feels irresponsible.  She cannot tolerate the gravitas in his demeanor and outlook on the world, yet depends on it.

Biutiful is a dark film exploring the journey of a man who is diagnosed with cancer and given less than a couple of months to live.  It is the story of a man caught in a world of exploitation, drug trafficking, and exploitation of Chinese and African immigrants.  Uxbal is in the middle of this hellish world that lies in the shadow realms of Barecelona, a beautiful city.  Uxbal has the ability to talk to the dead. He exists in the realm of death and is comfortable with it but he is trying to carve out his own moral existence out of the chaos he is working in.  The prospect of death forces him into introspection and retrospection.  He prepares for his death trying to come to terms with his marriage and his children and confronting his own legacy.

This film is also about death. The western view of storytelling can only view death from a particular perspective.  In Biutiful, we are presented with characters who are complex and struggling with doing what they think is right.   Uxbal raises his young daughter Ana and son Mateo alone, struggling to make ends meet. Devoted to his children, Uxbal at once protests his own death while preparing for it.  This is the true paradoxical nature of dying.  We must take the heroic path before we can abandon it.  There is no easy redemption for Uxbal.  In fact this film is not really about redemption, it is about letting go of our old attitude toward the world to take on a new one, to be transformed by the universe rather than trying to transform it.  In one scene Uxbal purchases some heaters for the immigrants he barters for work who live in a closed basement that is cold. He thinks the heaters he gets for the immigrants is the right thing. But in his need to ensure money for his children he purchases less expensive heaters that fail and cause the death of all those he was responsible for.  This is a man whose fatherly role is taken very seriously. After all he never knew his father, so being a good father is important to him. In fact the men in this film are all trying to be good fathers.  But there is danger in taken a stance so one-sided.

In an interview the director discusses this theme of the father in the film.  “People are at their most ruthless in defense of their children. ”And all the people in this film act according to their needs as fathers. There is a line in the film which is almost a summary of what the film is about, where a policeman says that you can’t trust a man who is hungry but, even more, you can’t trust a man whose kids are hungry.”

This fim was nominated for two Academy Awards in 2011 – Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor.  Bardem’s nomination made his performance the first entirely Spanish language performance to be nominated for that award. Bardem also received the Best Actor Award atCannes for his work on the film.

This film reminds me of Akira Kurosawa’s masterly Ikiru (aka Living), which was about a middle aged Japanese civil servant who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and how the inevitability of death transforms him from someone cold and bureaucratic into someone engaged in life and in his deeper self.  Kurosawa’s film depicts the government bureaucracy as cold and dispassionate and its main character must confront the meaninglessness of his life before he can transform it.  In his transformation we see the ripple effect on those around him.

Uxbal is a gifted man. He can speak to the dead and people pay him for this gift.  This gift requires that he carry the secrets of the dead with him.  He attends funerals of those he does not know.  His wife scolds him for bringing his children to funerals.  Uxbal is weighted down by death but has not been transformed by it until he himself must confront it.  Towards the end there is a scene in which his body is floating above him.  It is his mortal body seeing his subtle body or soul.  The lightness of the subtle body is on contrast with Uxbal’s weightiness.   This is his opposite self.

Uxbal’s brother is his opposite. He has no sense of responsibility,  no groundedness, no connection with the ancients.  He cannot bear to see their father after his body is exhumed from a tomb.  It is Uxbal who must see their father’s corpse, to connect with his grief and the loss of his father. His unlived life was his relationship with his father which he did not have.  It is his father that guides him into the next world in the place of the snow after Uxbal dies.  The snow becomes a symbol of Uxbal’s otherly realm. He was to take a vacation with his wife and children to the snow laden Pyrenees but must send them alone as he attends to heavier matters.

In the Red Book,  page 273, Jung confronts Death in his active imagination.  He tells Death, “I strive to those lowlands where the weak currents , flashing in broad mirrors, stream toward the sea, where all haste of flowing becomes more and more dampened, and where all power and all striving unites with the immeasurable extent of the sea.”    The image of the sea is the image of the universal whole and death is the path to this universe.  Jung knows that being near death will be transformative and says, “I know you are ice and the end; you are the cold silence of the stones; and you are the highest snow on the mountains and the most extreme frost of outer space.  I must feel this and that is why I stand near you.” (p.274).  We find death in the low places, the lowly of society. It is movement toward the sea.  In the film Uxbal is afraid of what lies at the bottom of the sea. The sea also represents the unconscious. Uxbal is afraid of what lies in shadow.  The moral crisis he confronts is the moral crisis that confronts us all.  In the end he must abandon himself to the universe.

Uxbal has a friend, Bea, that we do not know much about but who has had a profound influence on him.  Bea is told about his diagnosis and she tells him he needs to prepare to leave the world.  He tells her he is not ready and cannot die if only for his children.  Who will take care of them.  She tells him, “The universe will take care of them Uxbal” and his response is, angrily, “Will the universe pay the rent and buy food”.  Here lies the polarity in stances toward death and he must change his world view and slowly as the story unfolds his view of the universe changes. And by the end of the film, if we allow ourselves, our view of our world changes as well and we derive a deeper appreciation for the complexity of human nature as we struggle to make sense of it all.