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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Pick of the Week, New. Biutiful


Biutiful (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

Spain: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, 2011 (Roadside Attractions)

In Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s sad and moving film Biutiful, Javier Bardem gives an extraordinary performance as a dying man named Uxbal: a small time Barcelona hustler working a variety of scams and shady deals to support his two young children. Uxbal is a man living on the dark side who suddenly discovers that he‘s dying of prostate cancer.

Playing this role, so full of fallibility and pathos, Bardem at times to be carrying us to some bottomless psychic well of pain and sorrow. Yet Bardem’s character in Biutiful (the title comes from his young daughter Ana‘s s misspelling of “Beautiful” ) is no saint. He‘s a petty crook who cons the bereaved by pretending to communicate with their dead, and, in his main job, helps exploit poor Asia and African immigrants, who work under miserable conditions in a secret factory building.

Uxbal is a family man, and there too he falls short. He tries to care for his two young children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Matteo (Guillermo Estrella), while being separated from their hot, high-stepping mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez). But he has a temper and gets easily distracted. Through all this, he is so overworked and pressed that at first it seems a cruel joke when he learns he is dying. (Maybe he’s better off sick, better off dead.)

Uxbal is not a good man; he’s a petty crook, working for bigger crooks. But the revelation by the doctors of his mortality and inevitable death makes him somehow want to be good, maybe to bring their mother back into the children’s lives, make sure they’re provided for, be better to the hapless Asians whom his employers so viciously exploit — like the mother and her little girl whom he often worries will catch cold at night. (Uxbal gets a cheap space heater to try to keep them warm.). He wants to be a good man. But the irony is that he can’t.

Marambra, the mother of Uxbal‘s children, a good-natured bipolar floozy, can barely take care of herself, let alone Uxbal and the kids (though she wants to). Uxbal‘s sleazy bosses Hai (Cheng Tai Sheng) and Li Wei (Luojin) are irresponsible sweatshop operators, and also lovers. And Uxbal’s genial brother Tito (Eduardo Fernandez) who hires Uxbal‘s illegal workers, is a bit of a crook himself, and also has the hots for Marambra.

This is a morally dark, sordid world, with barely a model example of a good person anywhere to be seen. Maybe one. There’s Ige (Dairyatou Daff), the Senegalese immigrant wife and mother who cares for Ana and Mateo when Uxbal can’t. But, in a way, she‘s out for herself too. (Who can blame her?) In the movie, once Uxbal learns of his cancer, almost nothing goes right for him, or for anyone else, and it’s clear that it’s largely his own fault. This is the way he has lived his life. This is the way he will die.

Unlike the dying old civil servant played by Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a quiet kind old man who has lived a modest life and now just wants to leave behind a playground for the neighborhood, Uxbal seems to have lived a largely bad, self-indulgent life, ameliorated somewhat by his late attempts to be a good father. But now he can’t even provide for hs children and leave behind his money properly — and in fact, though unintentionally, he causes a great deal more suffering in this story himself.

 Uxbal is not a good man, not a good father — though he tries. He’s simply a small-time hustler and a very good looking man with huge beautiful soulful eyes, who is being plunged further and further into darkness and misery as we watch. Partly, it is Bardem’s unusual handsomeness that we respond to. If he were a ratlike, cocky little man, an obvious con artist like Ricardo Darin in Nine Queens, it might be harder to feel for him. But we do feel for him somehow — partly because he’s a dying father with kids, but maybe also because the movies (and TV) have all but indoctrinated us in false hierarchies of beauty — the persistent idea that the best looking people have moral worth too.

Should we weep for Uxbal: this mediocre father, this swindler, this cheat? Yet we can, we do — and in recognizing the humanity and part of a good heart beneath this petty crook‘s corruption and awful missteps, we are paying tribute to the soul that dwells within the meanest breast, and within the dying Uxbal’s too. What did my preacher say to us almost every Sunday? “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Of course! And that’s why Bardem as Uxbal is as saturated with goodness, pain and masochism as the killer Sugar (also played by Bardem) in No Country for Old Men was saturated with badness, sadism and evil.

It’s a great performance and a great film. Inarritu takes us into the seedy side of Barcelona — Uxbal’s crowded apartment, the shabby basement, full of illegal Asian immigrants, streets full of Senegalese immigrant peddlers subject to police raids (by police whom Uxbal tries to keep bribed, but can’t). And Inarritu shows us these mean streets, and the mean lives lived by Uxbal and his little daughter and his son Mateo, and all the others, with a stunning visual/dramatic style that suggests both the feverishly colored ferocity of a Scorsese and the compassion, high stagecraft and high humanism of a De Sica. The cinematographer is Rodrigo Prieto (Inarritu’s usual camera partner) and Prieto bathes the streets in fierce light, even as he picks out Uxbal and his children in their room, in shadows, as death draws nearer.

Bardem doesn’t overplay the role. He portrays this sensitive but crooked man — separated from the kids’ mother — gently, with compassion and with astonishing truthfulness. The misery is real, and Bardem and Inarritu make us feel it.


Uxbal’s eyes are as sad as a pool in which a child has drowned. Behind that holy handsomeness, his face is melancholy and supremely vulnerable, and he seems to be carrying us into a tragedy without tragic stature: the death of a small-time crook, whose power stems not from heroism fallen, but from hopeless misery and blasted intentions — and the heart of a child in a dark room, watching her daddy die.


Inarritu — in Amores Perros, in 21 Grams and here, has become a poet of contemporary pain and violence and sorrow. He is himself a man who smiles and laughs a lot, a one-time star disc jockey in Mexico City, but we haven’t seen that side so much yet in his films. We may eventually. His sense of humor, buried a bit here, is an underlying part of the pity and terror and beauty he achieves in those other ensemble films, and in Babel too.

In the end, Bardem’s Uxbal is not quite beautiful, because we see him too clearly. But he is “biutiful,” because that’s what the little girl Ana sees. Dying, her father becomes transfigured, and, so, for a moment, does she. And that feeling of forgiveness is what makes “Biutiful” a great movie, Bardem‘s Uxbal a great performance. The God who may welcome his spirit in the movie’s last hallucinatory scene, must surely feel something for this sad, tormented man and for the last, harrowing act of his life, and for his final dream. And so do we.

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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.”
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