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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF Review: Biutiful

When a great director has teamed repeatedly with a brilliant writer over the course of a career, one has to ponder how much the unique chemistry of two artistic minds working on a common canvas shapes the quality of the end result. Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s films Amores Perres, 21 Grams, and multiple-Oscar nominee Babel (which won only for Original Score), were written by Guillermo Arriaga (sometimes off ideas hatched by Iñárritu), with whom the much-lauded director had a much-ballyhooed falling out.

This time around with his newest film, Biutiful, Iñárritu penned the script himself, along with co-writers Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, off an idea that, according to the press materials, first had its seed planted when he and his family were driving to Telluride in support of Babel.

When Iñárritu introduced Babel to a packed Telluride audience back in 2006, he spoke of that film as the conclusion to a death-themed trilogy preceded by Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Because it’s so darkly, starkly tragic, it would be easy to consider Biutiful to be a continuation of Iñárritu’s ongoing “death” theme on the surface, but in spite of what this film might seem to be about, the underlying theme is not about death.

Rather, Biutiful is a tragedy about life, about how achingly, bitterly brief the time we have to live it is, and about what we do with the time we have — whether we think we have all the time in the world or know, as Uxbal (Javier Bardem) does, that the time we have to do things, to set things right, to protect those we love, is nearing its end.

Biutiful represents a departure from Iñárritu’s previous films in that he eschews a non-linear, thread-like tapestry structure and opts, instead, for a simple story about one man, told in one timeline, very simply and perfectly bookended by the whispers of a father and daughter in the dark.

But, fans of Iñárritu’s previous work will want to know, is the indefinable sense of magic, the intricate storytelling — in short, that Iñárritu “stamp” still there, even if the style of telling it is more spare, less tricksy?

Oh yes, it surely is. Not only is it there, but Biutiful is, I think, my favorite of Iñárritu’s films to date.

Iñárritu returns to his native language with Biutiful, and that seems, artistically, to be a good choice, at least for this film. He sets the film in Barcelona — not the glitzy, pretty, fashionable Barcelona the tourists see, but the steamy, gritty underbelly inhabited largely by the invisible people most of us avert our eyes and minds from seeing. The exploited immigrants used for cheap labor, the illegals more or less held captive in basements and warehouses, let out only to work and then locked by in like animals, the strippers dancing for horny patrons, reduced only to their pertinent body parts.

There’s a lot Iñárritu is saying throughout the film about these people, the countless, unnumbered, unnoticed people who form hives of communities in every big city; yes, even here in lovely Toronto, there are immigrants struggling to survive, to stay alive another day, working the kind of dismal, backbreaking jobs that are barely a notch above indentured servitude, living crowded in hovels or basements, at the mercy of others.

We don’t think about them if we can help it, we in our pristine, comfortable lives. We look the other way, perhaps, when we make our purchases, or drive past the crowd of immigrants that gather hopefully each morning in front of Home Depot and other such stores, looking desperately for work, any work, because to live in Barcelona or Paris or London or New York or Toronto, even under those conditions, is better than where they came from. Take a second to ponder that. We in our privileged existence cannot begin, really, to wrap our minds around the collective tragedy of so many lives, so many souls, living invisible lives in service to our wants and needs, right under our noses.

Iñárritu shows us a glimpse of this world through Uxbal, who wheels and deals and bribes to find work for these people. Yes, he takes his cut to survive, too, but he pushes on behalf of the immigrants he helps, he tries to make things better for them. More to the point: He sees them, in a way that most of us do not, just as he sees the dead and also tries to help them. The one person he can’t help is himself, and he clings futilely to the precious time he has left, trying desperately to ensure that his children will be okay when he’s gone.

And they won’t, of course, not really — can any child who loses a parent, much less children who can’t even count on the other parent to support them through their loss? — and yet they will. Yes, they will survive somehow, as evidenced by Uxbal himself, whose father died before he was even born. What Uxbal wishes most, though, is that his children not forget him when he’s gone.

And with that, Iñárritu really gets at the heart of this story: What is a life? Is it the sum of what we do with it, an enumeration of the good things and bad, the good intentions that went awry, the people we helped, the love we gave, sometimes in vain, and the love we were given by others?

Javier Bardem is, in a word, magnificent in this film. It may seem early to say this, but I will be shocked if he doesn’t garner an Oscar nom for this performance. He’s bolstered by an excellent supporting cast, particularly by Alvarez as Marambra, who manages to make an inherently unlikable character at least a little sympathetic, by the two kids, who are just terrific, and by a slew of non-actors, many of them actual immigrants who live these lives every day. But this is Bardem’s act all the way, and Iñárritu’s vision shaping the story with artistry and precision.

Iñárritu, in the director’s statement included with the press material for Biutiful, compares Babel to an opera and Biutiful to a requiem — a mass for the dead, or music related to death and mourning. That’s not an inapt comparison, but I would liken Biutiful as much to a epic, richly textured poem exploring the dual tragedies of life and death.

It’s deep, it’s moving, it’s at times very hard to watch, especially if you are a parent, even more especially if you are a parent who has ever looked upon your own young children and wondered if death would be coming to take you away from them before you were ready to let go.

What happens to a life when a person dies? Not in the “afterlife” sense, that’s not what Iñárritu’s interested in here. This film is about what happens to you, to who you are, when your physical body is gone and all that is left of you are the memories that live on in those whose lives you’ve touched, and the things you leave behind: A photograph, capturing one brief moment in a life. A ring, handed down through the generations as a thread reminding us of the promise of love, whatever talismans we might leave to be held in safekeeping by those we leave behind, whatever things we might try to impart with all the meaning of our lives and our hearts and our souls, that those we must leave have something of us to hold onto, to cherish.

And most of all, to be remembered: I lived. I loved. I was.

“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” – “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”.

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3 Responses to “TIFF Review: Biutiful”

  1. Sharon says:

    This is an absolutely fantastic, heartfelt review. Biutiful has been on the top of my must see list all year an now I want to see it even more. Great job Kim!

  2. Andrea Boxer says:

    One of the best experiences to date – and ever since seeing the movie – it has played over and over again in my mind – it touched me.

    No one should miss this movie

  3. Angel says:

    I just saw this movie, and I can’t stop thinking about it either. I can’t even talk about it yet. This movie definitely touched me. An added bonus was that Javier Bardiem was there and I got to meet him and take a picture with him. He was so generous with his time. He’s a funny guy, too. He consoled me when I met him and told me that the movie will stay with me for a few days.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon