The Beauty of Dying
The films of Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu all have certain commonalities. So far they’re all contemporary films dealing with contemporary issues like globalization, immigration and poverty, and all have obvious aesthetic similarities. But as anyone knows their biggest commonality is that they’re all, well, kind of downers. Of course this does not mean that they’re bad film, in fact I am very fond of all his films so far (including this one) but this is starting to worry me simply because it is becoming a bit predictable what kind of film one can expect from this obviously gifted filmmaker.
But with that said he did change up things enough with his last film, “Biutiful”, to make all those familiar interests seem fresh enough. Now instead of a fractured narrative with multiple protagonists we have a single protagonist in a linear narrative, and even the overbearing realism of his style is penetrated for the first time with the glimpses of the fantastical, as our protagonist seems to posses supernatural powers (he can see recently deceased people). And this element has been handled in the best possible way in my opinion because it is completely secondary to the story and only serves a thematic and character driven purpose, allowing the human drama to take the front and center of the film.
The film takes place in the poor neighborhoods of present-day Barcelone and follows Uxbal (Javier Barden) a small time street entrepreneur that’s trying to organize immigrants and provide them with black-market work like peddling goods on the streets and hard labor work in a Chinese handbag and DVD piracy shop. It’s the best he can do and it’s the best they can get. So despite the grimness of all this business it is clear that he is a good guy that’s struggling to make a life for himself and his kids, while dealing with the problems of these immigrants, his bi-polar ex-wife and the news that he has terminal cancer.
So it’s totally an Inarritu film in that it’s a downer, but it’s somehow also his most hopeful film in that Uxbal meets his struggles head on and does his very best to do right and leave this place the best he can. And death is a major theme of the film and the message that is coming across through all its pores is that, first of all, we all die. It’s a simple thing that everyone knows but very few people seem willing to face, and the stance of this film is that the sooner we face the limits of our existence on this earth the sooner we will start really living. And second, that no matter how bad life can get there’s always beauty to be found. Yes it’s a downer but it’s presented with a sense of absolute sincerity and honesty.
But if there was one thing to be criticized is the film’s certainty in an afterlife, in which to a large degree our protagonist finds strength to carry on because it is also reaffirmed by his supernatural touch. It is my opinion that the film’s power would be amplified if he managed to find this reaffirmation of life in an exclusively earthly form - but this is a reflection of the director’s beliefs, and a criticism by a person that doesn’t have the same convictions. In any way it did not prevent me from enjoying the film or the message it carries which is universal no matter of one’s beliefs.
On a technical level we get pretty much what we’ve come to expect from an Inarritu film, the great handheld camera work brings out the realism and the colorful lighting gives the film a poetic and modern touch of cinematic style. Beyond that “Biutiful” may be even my favorite film of Inarritu’s, in part because the whole is not artificially made complex by editing wizardry and trusts the power of the story and the characters and the actors to carry it. It’s not that the other films were hampered by their exuberant editing but it did in my opinion call too much attention to itself (especially in “21 Grams”) even to the point where it was distracting from the story and the characters. However there is a certain power in that kind of filmmaking as well, but that is not this film anyway. “Biutiful” does feel more personal to me and it has a central performance that is a wonder in its own right.
Javier Bardem - Uxbal
Maricel Alvarez - Marambra
Diaryatou Daff - Ige
Taishen Chen - Hai
Eduard Fernandez - Tito
Original language - Spanish