Keepin’ it Reel: Biutiful

Showing this week at the Avon

Biutiful is a ringing endorsement of this, our best of all possible worlds. It finds Uxbal (Javier Bardem) in the grim “underbelly” of modern Barcelona, which teems with undocumented immigrants and their exploitative supervisors, corrupt cops, and a general haze of cigarette smoke and desperation. Things aren’t going too well for old Uxbal: There’s only enough money to feed his two children cereal and fish. His bipolar ex-wife sleeps around, including with Uxbal’s brother. He believes himself to be a benevolent force in a number of complex immigrant money-making schemes, but those are unraveling before his eyes. And to top it all off, Uxbal is dying. In short, things couldn’t be better.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu imparts a number of images that will prove to be absolutely unforgettable, including many I’m sure I will want to forget. Visually, the grimy intersection of human dignity and globalization is found in greens and greys. It is accompanied by another stunning score from Gustavo Santolalla (the two teamed up for Babel) which feels like those same colors. The real heavy lifting here is done by Bardem, or maybe more specifically, Bardem’s face. It’s as if you can almost see the print of Orwell’s proverbial “boot stomping on the human face, forever” in its lines. Pensive and craggy, he’s like a dormant volcano of emotion, trying not to erupt.

The word I’ve heard associated with Biutiful is “melodrama”. When the film ended, a woman behind me said to her husband, “Did you know it was going to be that depressing?” He simply answered, “yeah”. Here’s a portion of the Miami Herald’s review:

The movie is unwieldy and overstuffed with subplots – and, at 2 1/2 hours, probably too much misery and sorrow for most viewers.

What that sounds like to me is life itself. Unwieldy and overstuffed with subplots, too long, and with too much misery and sorrow? Welcome to the best of all possible worlds. Life isn’t some Garry Marshall-like pastel paradise of serendipity. In fact, serendipity is both commonplace and generally unwelcome, if not outright bad. Our world is a melodramatic Venn diagram of love and capitalism and religion and parenthood and mortality. Rarely does anyone find themselves in the happy center; most of us are in the crowded but lonely intersections. “Probably too much misery and sorrow for most viewers…” As if you aren’t alive already!

However, I hope what people don’t leave this film with is, “You think your life is hard? Consider this guy!” Life is difficult, but let’s not appreciate ours in relation to the difficulty of others’. Let’s instead value those moments where we realize the stunning fact of being alive. In perhaps Uxbal’s lowest moment, he stops to admire a flock of birds maneuvering in the sky. At another point, close to death, he seems fascinated by a shadow. And when he admits his sickness to his young daughter, the intensity with which they hold each other overrides all the sadness of the rest of the movie.

If those moments can exist at all, if we can hold our daughters tight, then this is the best of all possible worlds, and all of the other struggle is worth it. So you don’t have to be Pangloss, deluding yourself about the world to be happy. Just try looking up when walking across the Main Green instead of looking forward.

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