Inarritu has been accused of reveling in the misery of others for the purpose of telling a story, which is a fair criticism in that he has yet to release his upcoming opus about a kingdom of puppies that shit rainbows and piss butterflies. While critics await that creation, we are left to regard Biutiful, a film that is painfully intimate while holding its viewers at a distance. One would not be faulted for lacking an overwhelming desire to take in the story of a hustler who corrals illegal immigrants into backbreaking and dangerous labor and is also dying of cancer, because that is some heavy shit. On the other hand, it is also the way the majority of the world lives. As Ejiofor’s character in Dirty Pretty Things noted about illegal immigrants, “We are the people you do not see.” The dirtiest jobs, the shady construction sites, donated organs, migrant fruit work, and the fashioning of all those bootleg handbags that the privileged classes enjoy – somebody who cannot afford such things need to make them. The base of our global pyramid society is made up of the hardworking desperate, and Inarritu has a passion for telling their story. To say there is an ocean of misery involved goes without saying, and our protagonist can no longer swim. Though appearing to be of a more limited focus than Babel, Biutiful is as universal, and is likely Inarritu’s finest work thus far.
Javier Bardem brings extraordinary gravity to the character of Uxbal, a low level hustler, who is a part of keeping this mean machine humming. He is not sentimental about his work, and understands that there is no good or bad to be found here. There are only the teeming masses of warm bodies looking for any sort of work that is available. Uxbal manages a group of immigrants, all hiding in various warehouses, and he moves these people to where they need to be for the work available. Some are Chinese, huddled into a dank basement to sleep in between shifts of assembling knockoff Gucci purses. Others are African, trying to move the goods on the streets while Uxbal bribes the police to look the other way. For this he is able to afford poverty, which for the poor is prohibitively expensive. His only charge is his two children from an abortive marriage to a bipolar woman who can barely be trusted to fetch coffee let alone help raise his kids. The kids work hard in school, and at home their father offers them fish and chips even though only cereal can be found in their spartan kitchen. He is stockingpiling cash, and his pace to ready his children for the future has hit overdrive – he is dying of metastatic cancer. This is not a superfluous layer of distress – health care for the lower classes is terrible for many reasons, like lack of infrastructure, a paucity of funding, a shortage of proper treatments. For Uxbal, he never had time to evaluate the blood in his urine. There is no time for sleep, even the eternal kind.
Nobody is witness to this or any other tragedy in Biutiful, as this is our world, one beyond indifference. Problems tend to attract additional problems, as his chronic pain interferes in his work. He struggles mightily to build a home in a hurry for his kids, and in his narcotic and pain-induced fog, he does not get to know whether they will make it safely to the other side. Beauty is an unattainable luxury here, even in the city of Barcelona. The photogenic architecture makes nary an appearance here, as the characters have no time to even look up.
His wife is indeed unstable, but there is still some love there, and he gives a true home one more shot. One could fault him for being overly optimistic, but you never know when such a gesture will help in the end. A theme of doomed gesture runs through Biutiful, as seemingly every attempt to fix a situation only makes it worse. So it goes for the drudgery class. Our elaborate mechanisms to stave off hunger and loss are destined to fall apart, and we can only hope our offspring are able to build their own ill-fated dreams that will require constant polishing to remain alive. In between our failures comes the beauty that can be measured in moments, and then the moment is gone.
Death, as expected, is as much a theme as a constant character peering over Uxbal’s shoulder. For spare cash he pretends to be a medium for the dead, and awaits his clients in the funeral parlors bustling with business. To raise some quick cash, he prepares to sell his father’s mausoleum to a company clearing land for condominiums. And throughout this film, Uxbal’s father keeps him company. He never met his father, and first sees his face as his embalmed corpse is removed from its niche. Uxbal’s children at least knew him; for many immigrants, their children grow up with little to no contact with their parents. Millions of workers spend all but a few days of the year away from home, laboring and sleeping in factories. They are a generation orphaned by supply and demand.
Biutiful is filled with tragic moments, each all the more affecting for their random nature. And all too often the calamity was precipitated by a helping hand. No greater meaning is assigned to catastrophe here, rendering the aftertaste all the more bitter. We prefer a cosmic plan to go with the agony. We are even deprived of a villain to hate, as nobody sprouts horns here. One character warns Uxbal: “Never trust a man with a hungry child.” A policeman busts some of his workers; they were warned, and he was doing his job. His wife, in a painful scene, was to take his children away for the weekend, and Uxbal comes home to find his son was left behind; she is bipolar and extremely crazy. Two Chinese men manage a sweatshop; the older man works partly out of love for the younger, manipulative man, and the demand is there for cheap goods.† The tone is one of resigned acceptance of these moving parts of a far greater whole.
Javier Bardem lends his character great complexity, capturing moribund desperation with the intense concentration and constant distraction that chronic pain can cause. With time, and the advancement of his cancer, he begins to flail, and fall for the last time. There is no salve to the wounds in Biutiful, no healing with time, and no catharsis to cover the empty future that faces Uxbal’s children without their father or any trusted guardian to stay the abuse that the world has in store. They form an insignificant part of a grand community of incomplete people. Children without parents, adults without work, broken people with only faint hope for redemption. Like Uxbal, we are working most of all for the opportunity to be redeemed, and our sacrifice only gives us an outside shot at doing so.