English Title: Biutiful

Original Title: Biutiful

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Mod Producciones, Ikiru Films, Menage Atroz

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Producer(s): John Kilik, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Fernando Bovaira

Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone

Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto

Art Director: Marina Pozanco, Sylvia Steinbrecht

Editor: Pablo González del Amo

Runtime: 150 minutes

Genre: Film of the Year

Language: Spanish

Starring/Cast: Javier Bardem, Diaryatou Daff, Eduard Fernández, Maricel Álvarez

Year: 2010

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

The film starts and ends at the same point: Uxbal and his daughter Ana talk about a ring, lying in bed in a darkened room. What happens in between is a great flashback. Enjambmented to the dialogue of the boot scene, we see a dream: a snowy forest, a dead owl, and another man younger than Uxbal. Right at the end of the story we will know that this man is his father, whom Uxbal did not know because he was exiled to Mexico, where died shortly afterwards.
The story itself – the broad flashback – begins at a hospital: Uxbal, an unlucky and desperate father, separated and with two young children, undergoes a medical examination: he is diagnosed with prostate cancer that will let him live only a few more months.
To give his children a good start in life, Uxbal runs both the drug trade in his neighborhood in Barcelona, the Raval, and the trafficking of illegal immigrants, apparently at arm’s length but, as the story unfolds, he will become increasingly involved in the lives of dealers, bootleg peddlers and their families, Chinese and African immigrants, and his own dysfunctional family.
In addition, Uxbal, as a spiritualist, has the ability to speak with the dead, that is, to put together two separate worlds, and to bring into contact the police with the underworld of drugs, and illegal immigrants with the foremen of the building works, assisted by his brother, who sleeps with his estranged wife, Marambra. She suffers from a bipolar disorder that prevents her from leading a normal life. Disorder, then, resounds in Uxbal’s position as mediator.
Before dying, he wants to order his life by entering into in a race against time, one in which he needs to forgive the son who pees the bed; his wife (who let to return home, which fails); his brother (who always helps, but betrays him with Marambra); and himself (for his involvement in the deaths of Chinese immigrants or the deportation of the Africans). Finally, he will find peace with himself and, as well as the money he gets together in his haste, he will donate a token gift to his children that is contained in the simplicity of (protective) black stones which contain a lesson: what is worthwhile in life is beyond the imaginary level. The scene in which the spiritualist gives them to Uxbal in the first place is at the geometric centre of the film which endows it with great symbolic significance.

Biutiful is the first feature film Gonzalez Iñárritu made without Guillermo Arriaga, his usual screenwriter; significantly, the seeds of this project were planted in 2006, the year of his break with Arriaga. The director himself began writing the script and, subsequently, he was joined by the Argentines Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone. If 21 gramos/21 Grams (2003), Amores Perros/Love Dogs (2005) and Babel (2006) are examples of fragmented narratives, Biutiful's story is linear, except, as noted above, the fact that most of the film is a great flashback. As a result this should be given special consideration because therein lies, perhaps, the key to Uxbal’s character: one cog in a globalized world that is not finally working.

Precisely, one of the greatest of Iñárritu’s virtues is his ability to be able to combine a number of narrative and aesthetic keys in a non-nationalistic way; to provide a work that is addressed to a global audience, pointing out the contradictions of globalization without falling into demagoguery. In fact, when Iñárritu first came to Barcelona in 1981 he experienced its brutal contradiction: a global world and, simultaneously, closed nationalism. Hence, perhaps, at the same time, this feature typically, and often, becomes the target of the biggest criticisms against Iñárritu’s cinema, as his work seems to fall into cultural relativism. This dialectic continues to show the flaws and complexities of the phenomenon par excellence of the twenty-first century: the already-mentioned globalization, beginning with the dependence of culture on nationalisms, which is still perceived in the global world.

The film is close to pure melodrama but, as will be discussed below in the appropriate gender essay, Biutiful specifically fits into the auteur melodrama in which the Mexican director is a master; it has reference to social cinema while being full of poetry.
Barcelona has probably never been represented in a more raw and yet dreamy way, far from the city of tourists, or Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). You do not find Gaudi's Barcelona – although it still appears beautiful, here it is rather 'biutiful' – and, above all, you do not get a Sagrada Familia ‘postcard’: when Uxbal stares from the window of the treatment room hospital, he gets to see it through a ghostly panorama shot in the distance, still under construction. This symbolic Barcelona temple is precisely what Uxbal seems to long for in his wanderings through the streets – a Law that will guide his decisions. And, therefore, the story of his father, who he could not know, becomes the secret key of the film, especially when he allows his daughter to say goodbye to him through a ring, and through the promise that might be enclosed within it. So, it makes sense that the film is framed in that sequence as a prologue and epilogue, with its derivative in the snow dream in which his father shows him a way out.

There is thus a spiritual evolution of the protagonist who, after a descent into hell – like the Chinese illegal immigrants who die in the basement poisoned by gas – furrowing a dirty, realist landscape – very close to the first Iñárritu’s film, Love Dogs – emerges in a magical and supernatural space, represented by black butterflies emerging from the ceiling in his most desperate and reflective moments. In these – as in the stones he donates to their children – we also find the aesthetic pointed to by the word 'biutiful': not an imaginary beauty but transcendent – see, for example, the tremendous Barcelona sky streaked with black birds (used in the trailer) which is the work of the fantastic Rodrigo Prieto, director of photography for all Iñárritu‘s films – and Brokeback Mountain (2005), among others.

This rarefied aesthetic crystallizes in the character's name: Uxbal is a strange name, as strange as would be that morning in which Iñárritu and his sons were preparing breakfast listening to the piano concerto in G major by Maurice Ravel and which made them sad, and the very same morning that a character named Uxbal knocked the door of the director's imagination.

The film is not the best of Iñárritu, although by February 2010 it had raised over 3 million euros in Spain alone. But there is no doubt that this is, perhaps, the best Javier Bardem performance. And, for us, it is undoubtedly the best film shot on Spanish soil in 2010.

Author of this review: Lorenzo Torres