BIUTIFUL starring Javier Bardem has restored my faith in filmmaking. Why? The truly beautiful performance from Bardem and the very moving story about globalization’s underbelly (or rather, frankly speaking, its most despised participants: migrant workers and their go-betweens). Also the best use of ghosts this side of Korean filmmaking!
Bardem, who has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance, plays a man dying of cancer with very little time to tie up a lot of loose ends in his life. Many people depend upon him–not the least of whom are his two young children. Others include a group of illegal African and Chinese migrant workers in Spain; various middle-men, including factory managers, a construction site foreman, and a crooked cop; and the families of the dead who pay him to tell them their loved ones’ last thoughts. Yes, in a twist that would seem out of place in less deft hands, Bardem’s character Uxbal has the psychic ability to communicate with the newly departed.
This theme, far from being hokey, is essential to director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vision. Death is not seen as a release from life’s troubles nor the gateway to a munificent Heaven. Instead as another psychic mentor in the film tells Uxbal, death is the beginning of a long, arduous road.
This notion is echoed in the sentiments that the dead whisper to Uxbal. They worry about thefts, the pains in their bodies (one man says his body is a sea of mud, his hair on fire). They do not impart words of wisdom or comfort. . . just as BIUTIFUL does not provide pat answers to the serious issues of economic inequity, exploitation of global migrant workers, and desperation that the characters endure.
Yet I did not find BIUTIFUL ultimately depressing. Far from it. The fact that a renowned director and successful actor who could have his pick of Hollywood roles chose to make this movie about the least powerful people among us gives me hope. The film does not disparage or condescend in telling the story of the difficult lives of its characters. It also does not turn any of them into paper saints. They are all complex, flawed, interesting and at times infuriating characters portrayed believably by the actors in the film.
Obviously, this film is not “lite” entertainment. It is not meant to distract us from our daily worries. And if your daily worries are overwhelming at the moment, this is probably not the film to see right now. But if you are invigorated by great acting and moments of visual poetry, BIUTIFUL provides a profound journey indeed.
(Note: a friend of mine has pointed out that the gay couple who run a sweatshop in the film could be used by homophobic and ignorant individuals to justify their bigotry. That is unfortunately possible given the climate of hatemongering that we live in…even though I don’t think it’s the intention of the filmmaker or his cast. Straight characters–male and female–also exploit those who are less powerful than themselves for profit. Straight people are not shown as being in any way morally superior because of their sexual orientation. In fact one of the most exploitative characters–he’s willing to dig up his father’s coffin and sell the space so a shopping mall can be built–is clearly shown to be heterosexual by his many sordid liaisons. The film is not a critique of sexual orientation or a study of sexual orientation. It IS a study of people who exploit poorer people, often because that is the only way they themselves can keep from falling into a greater poverty. That being said, until there is equal representation of gay characters in movies–and truly complex explorations of gay characters in mainstream movies–I think my friend’s concern is a point well worth mentioning.)