Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pauline's Review of Biutiful

How not to go gentle into that good night a review by Pauline Gregoire

I am quite certain that years from now, I will remember the experience of watching Biutiful more than I will remember the plotline itself; this is a story so heartrending, so tragic, that I went into self-preservation mode about three minutes in, refusing to let myself get too caught up in what was happening onscreen, and focused instead on how Javier Bardem was just acting in this movie, he was just doing his job, and what’s more, he goes home to Penelope Cruz, so really, how bad can it be, right? Right?

Despite all attempts at dissociation, however, it was hard not to be drawn into this film. And what a difficult film to watch it is. What I found most shocking about Biutiful, however was not the graphic depiction of death and dying, the unglamorous portrayal of the criminal underworld, or even the nightmare-inducing images of dead people hovering about the ceiling. What I found so outrageous was my own reaction: I felt bad for the main character, a man who’s made a living by exploiting others, whose poor judgment has led to other people’s death and suffering, and whose sense of right and wrong is so obviously skewed that it’s almost impossible to make him look good in a factual retelling of the plot. But the character had to elicit sympathy, or else we wouldn’t care what became of him; the urgency of his mission wouldn’t be properly conveyed. The fact that writer/director/producer Alejandro González Iñárritu manages to portray him in a victimized, let alone sympathetic, light is part of what makes this movie fantastic. Bardem’s performance is similarly flawless for its very real conveyance of desperation, regret, naïveté and guilt.

Biutiful follows the story of Uxbal, a character shaped by misfortune. His father died young, his ex-wife is bipolar, he is saddled with the job of raising his two children alone while sheltering them from his criminal activities, and he has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Endowed with the power to communicate with the dead, he is all too aware that he will forever be shackled to his worldly sins and regrets should he not make his peace before dying. With two months to live, he struggles to leave this world debt-free, and sets out on a journey to right – and seek forgiveness for – the wrongs he has committed. Far from a story of redemption, however, Uxbal’s last weeks are replete with tragic mishap, arguably putting him in a worse position than the one he started in.

Uxbal, you see, is in the business of smuggling Chinese immigrant workers into Barcelona so he can sell them to a sweatshop and profit from their underpaid labour to produce counterfeit luxury goods. He pays off his contact in the local police force not to arrest the men who sell these goods, but the cop goes back on his word when the sellers become involved in drug-dealing. Not only are he and the sellers brutally arrested and thrown into jail, but one of them is deported to Senegal, leaving his young wife and newborn homeless. Uxbal also attempts to allay the immigrant workers’ misery somewhat by purchasing heaters for the cold basement room where they sleep, but the cheap heaters malfunction, leading to a particularly gruesome scene where the workers are all found dead in the morning. Poor Uxbal just can’t seem to catch a break.

To further soften his character, we are never allowed to forget that Uxbal’s pursuit of ill-begotten income largely stems from the imperative of responsibility for his two children, eleven-year-old Ana and seven-year-old Mateo. Things are looking pretty grim for them too, having spent several years amidst the misery of a problematic marriage and now facing an uncertain future. In a desperate attempt to reassemble his broken family before he dies, he endeavours to reconcile with the children’s bipolar, alcoholic mother, Marambra, whose custody rights were removed following multiple episodes of irresponsible and erratic behaviour. Thinking that her time spent in treatment has substantially improved her condition, Uxbal unwittingly exposes his children to her unpredictable outbursts while she subjects their son to beatings, cruel punishment and abandon. But he was just trying to do what was best for his kids!

And so Uxbal is the cleverly portrayed human trafficker with a heart of gold whose relentless attempts to improve the lives of others never fail to backfire. While he engages in what are no doubt exploitative, selfish and ill-thought-out endeavours, we feel we ought to cut him some slack. He is a criminal in every sense of the word, but a regular Mother Theresa compared to the debaucherous Tito, his brother and business partner, and Hai, the despicable sweatshop boss. Uxbal genuinely loves his children and tries hard to make sure they’re protected and cared for. He has honest faith and hope in his wife’s potential for recovery. He is acceptably shocked and appalled at the immigrant workers’ untimely deaths. We know his heart is in the right place, we can see that he has suffered, we understand that his intentions are good, and consequently, we can’t help but forgive him and hope things turn out for the best.

But frankly, nothing good happens in Biutiful. It starts off grim, becomes bleak, is by turns horrific, disgusting and shocking, and does not fail in its attempt to remind you that for some people, life is absolutely hopeless. And that is why, at a given point, feelings of empathy for those hard-done-by – even if they’re largely responsible for their own sorrowful plight – are inescapable. No lessons are being taught here, but the story sheds considerable light on the human condition. Stripped of alternatives and being forced to confront death honestly doesn’t leave us with much room for pitiless judgement.

Fittingly, the treatment of death is perhaps the one element of Biutiful that allows this movie to live up to its name. Through Uxbal’s discussions with the dead, we understand that death offers the promise of peace, and among a cast of characters so desperately despondent, this is an attractive and readily endorseable prospect. As the story unfolds, and people move from their earth-bound bodies to the afterlife, so do the moths on Uxbal’s ceiling suddenly free themselves, as if emerging from cocoons, and leave the confines of the bedroom for the freedom of flight. This theme of rebirth in death, both within individuals and across generations, is strong throughout and does lend a welcome flicker of hope to an otherwise dismal story. As the film neatly begins and ends with Uxbal and his father reunited in death, and with Uxbal passing on his gift of clairvoyance – along with his mother’s wedding ring – to his daughter as he dies, the ties between generations are forged and strengthened in death. And we are reassured, though minimally, that there is hope in death even when hopelessness permeates life.

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