Tuesday, February 1, 2011


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert review -

It needs to be said at the outset that Biutiful (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who also directed Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros) is _not_ a cheerful movie. Most viewers will find it thought-provoking but very, very dark. I would not recommend it to any American viewer who has a great aversion to subtitled foreign language films or does not want to pay money for a movie that will probably/certainly depress. That being said, it is an excellent, well-crafted, well-acted, thought-provoking movie about life at the margins of a major European city, Barcelona.

The principal protagonist Uxbal (played by Javier Bardem who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the villain in No Country for Old Men), in his 40s and with a family, appears to have been the son of a Moroccan immigrant father and possibly a Spanish mother, both long deceased. Uxbal’s wife, Marambra (played by Maricel Álvarez) has an Arabic (Moroccan?) sounding name. Though left unsaid in the movie, assuming that Uxbal and Marambra are both largely assimilated adult children of Moroccan immigrants (but still carrying the legacies and wounds of the immigration/assimilation experience) greatly helps to explain the movie’s context.

Along with their two young children, Uxbal and Marambra live in a seedy part of Barcelona filled with other newer, more or less obviously illegal, immigrants. These include black West Africans who the Barcelona police relentlessly harrass and Chinese who the police leave alone but live in squalor. Uxbal and Marambra speak Spanish well (it probably should be Catalan, but in the movie they speak Spanish). However, neither of them has honest work. Uxbal serves as something of a middle-man between the North African/Chinese laborers/foremen and the Barcelona contractors who seek to hire them for work. Marambra hooks (works as a prostitute) on the side, though this is not to help support the family but rather to support her drug habit. Uxbal’s brother, Tito (played by Eduard Fernández), who doesn’t play a large role in the film but appears repeatedly throughout it, appears to have become a more “successful” (but still underworld) figure than Uxbal, running among other things a trashy Barcelona strip club.

Was “success in the underworld” the best that the three could hope for? One does not know, but the movie comes to speak forcefully about the “options” that are (or will be) available to undocumented aliens and their children in the United States, depending on how the debate in the United States turns, something _definitely_ to reflect upon.

However, there is much more in this movie than simply its immigrant context. Fairly early in the movie, Uxbal is diagnosed with having terminal (heavily metastasized) prostate cancer. He is dying. He also has a gift of being able to talk to the recently deceased. This gift seems to give him hope in the future even if his future appears to be the grave. But he has other worries as well. The prospect of leaving his two young kids with his hooking, drug addicted, possibly bipolar wife is not a cheerful one...

But then this is something that I’ve learned long ago: Even as “large” crises play out (wars, terrorist attacks, etc), smaller ones play out as well. When I was studying in Los Angeles as a grad-student in the 1980s, the L.A. Catholic Worker community there was providing housing to a 10 year old kid and his mother from El Salvador. The 10 year old had lost his arm, but not to anything dramatic like a land mine or a granade attack. He “simply” lost it to bone cancer. One of the tragedies of the “big tragedies” that play out is that they simply add to the awfulness of the smaller ones. Imagine if you needed a paramedic in New York or watched your mother die at her bedside “simply of cancer” on 9/11 ...

Biutiful is a multi-leveled exploration into such awfulness. Uxbal’s fate seemed to have been sealed by events that took place even before he was born. Yet in the midst of a really awful life, and even an awful closing stretch to an awful life, he is still given the task of managing his way to his Calvary. And the audience is invited, perhaps, to reflect on how they would have done given the same parameters that he had to work with.

Again, this is _not_ a cheerful movie, but certainly a thought-provoking one.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful informative review. I just saw this film tonight, I don't mind subtitles, I went to a funeral earlier in the day, and I was very moved by the film and especially by Javier Bardem's performance. Your background information/observations are very helpful. Yes, in Barcelona they would have spoken Catalan, but I'm guessing they used Spanish because it is more accessible to the general public. The notes about the immigrant backgrounds help a lot. Thanks again.
    Kitty, Mpls MN