“Still are your lashes, and so is your heart”
It may be the first feature that Alejandro González Iñárritu directed without longtime writing partner Guillermo Arriaga, it may be the film that proves he was the driving force behind his loose trilogy of masterpieces spanning multiple languages and locales, but Biutiful also shows that his tales of emotionally wrought drama work best in an interweaving multi-layer structure. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel all used three distinct plot threads, allowing them to coexist on a single plane and connect together, but also told separately while blurring the line of past, present, and future. With his newest, Iñárritu decided he’d try something new and tell a linear story from start to finish about a dying man and his final days reconciling shady occupational dealings and the family he loves. Unfortunately, he also branches off into the lives of a Senegalese couple and a Chinese sweatshop owner, two factions of people Uxbal has worked with and exploited. While they are necessary to the story and understanding this complicated man, we’re given too much information and stories that should exist on their own. Had Iñárritu shook it all up, like before, I think the result would have been flawless.
Those other threads aren’t unwelcome; I actually found both captivating in their own ways. Hai’s (Cheng Tai Shen) factory, for instance, serves a purpose in the Barcelona economy—its underbelly exposed like no clichéd exotic romance I’ve seen in the same Spanish setting—gives the Chinese laborers more money than they’d get back home, and shows a nice duality to Javier Bardem’s lead. Uxbal may take his cut, but he also finds these illegals a means to sustain their families. My problem isn’t with their inclusion then, it’s with how prevalent their stories become. Do we need to know Hai’s personal relationship with business partner Luo Jin’s Liwei? Do we need to watch as the basement dwelling peasants work for a man Uxbal’s brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) helped him find? Rather than welcome the reprieve to visit with these characters, all I thought was, “when is Uxbal coming back?” Unlike the previous work, these stories don’t cut back and forth in a way that complements the others to stand as equals. Bardem is the star and so is his tale. When we leave him for chapters irrelevant to the big picture, it simply becomes padding. And at 148 minutes, that’s not something in great need.
But maybe I’m looking at it all the wrong way. Maybe my frustration isn’t due to the fact they’re unnecessary, maybe it’s because Iñárritu and his co-writers crafted one of the most three-dimensional characters of the year in Uxbal. Despite Colin Firth’s almost guaranteed Oscar win to make up for a 2009 loss, there hasn’t been a better male performance than Javier Bardem this year. Uxbal is a loving, compassionate father who tries his hardest to shield his kids from the bipolarity and prostitution of their mother Marambra (Maricel Álvarez); he wants to help the Chinese and African fringe residents, not just because he makes money off of them, but because he knows their hardships; and he has a supernatural sixth sense to talk to the dead, helping grieving family members know their loved ones passed on peacefully. It’s a full plate for anyone—reconciling one’s guilt in facilitating grievous labor conditions and trying to find a balance for his kids to have the upbringing he didn’t because his 20-year old father left and died in Mexico while his pregnant mother stayed home, herself passing away shortly after. Add the fact he has only two months before cancer ends his life and you can understand the inner pain etched to his brow.
Besides a beautifully abstract opening with the shot of Uxbal and daughter Ana’s (Hanaa Bouchaib) hands moving in the darkness, the two speaking about his grandmother’s diamond ring, and a dreamlike sequence within a forest of birch trees, its other-worldly atmosphere a purposeful aesthetic choice, Iñárritu shoots with an eye for realism. Characters are often on the ground with the camera angled from above and each is shown in close-up, expressing their grave desperation beneath surface smiles. Every single person is at the bottom of the economic scale, scraping a life by any means possible with Bardem’s Uxbal a guardian angel of sorts. He finds these immigrants work, he pays off his friend in the police department, and he takes from his own cut to help those that matter. One of the Chinese girls watches his children and Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye) is considered a friend, not just an African transplant hustling knock-off purses on the street. This man trusts Uxbal, even when at risk of deportation because co-workers were slinging drugs with the clutches, and helps his wife Ige (Diaryatou Daff) realize this fact, allowing her to be an integral component later on.
Tai Shen’s Hai has real power to him and Daff’s Ige the same. The former comes and goes, the tragedies striking his story adding to Uxbal’s guilt, creating ghosts crouched onto the ceiling to haunt him as a result, while the latter unexpectedly becomes a member of the family. Despite their roles, though, the real intrigue comes in how Bardem embodies his role’s capacity to be a husband and father with everything else. His sickness is kept secret, but he dreams about possible reconciliation with his estranged wife, knowing she may need to care for the kids when he is gone. Bouchaib’s Ana is a headstrong young girl, much smarter given credit for and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) is a boy getting into trouble. Uxbal has custody due to Marambra’s mental state, but during the course of the film, he gives her one more chance to prove she wants to be a family again. Álvarez, a theatrical actress making her big screen debut, holds her own against her powerhouse lead, making us feel sorry for her plight despite her continual descent into bad habits. The woman can’t help herself and the split second change from anger to a positive attitude only adds to the hurt in Uxbal’s soul.
Biutiful shows the lifestyles of those we like to forget, inside a city we like to believe is a tourist attraction devoid of imperfection. People need to make money to survive and others need to be the ones using them for their own gains, locking them up as indentured servants or letting them live in squalor. This film can’t give us a ‘white knight’ of justice because one cannot exist amongst the pain prevalent throughout. Our hero is a man who does what he must, a man who does everything for his children in order to protect them from the life he leads providing it. Uxbal knows what is awaiting him after death through his gift, but letting go isn’t as easy as one may think. Knowing how much time he has doesn’t allow him to make peace, it only causes his love to grow stronger. Whatever time he has left, he is going to use it to help those that have touched him. It isn’t always possible, though, and sometimes the act of helping ends up hurting, drastically. Either way, Uxbal carries on as always—a man of integrity and honor known to dabble with the wrong side of the law—never putting anyone ahead of his children.
 Javier Bardem as Uxbal in BIUTIFUL, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Photo Credit: Jose Haro
 Javier Bardem as Uxbal and Hanaa Bouchaib as Ana in Director Alejandro González Iñárritu on the set of BIUTIFUL. Photo Credit: Jose Haro
 Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal in Roadside Attractions’ Biutiful (2010)