Iñárritu gets better with each film he makes. His screenplay (with co-scriptwriters Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone) in Biutiful takes a quantum jump in quality from his earlier Babel. In Babel, Iñárritu toyed with global ramifications of one person’s innocent actions, often an outcome of a knee-jerk reaction due to lack of empathy and/or of sympathy. Biutiful inverts somewhat similar connections and concerns from souls connecting beyond the grave with the living approaching their own death.
While it is easy to be swayed by the riveting (Cannes Best Actor, 2010) performance of the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, the real winner in this remarkable movie for me is its writer-director Iñárritu. Biutiful is a movie that deals with people living on the fringes of urban poverty, flirting with communication with souls in their after-life. The film begins with an absolutely stunning conversation between a man about to die and a man (the father, or is it his grandfather?) who is already dead. The film essentially discusses the last days of a man who has the gift of communicating with the dead. Just as one glimpsed Iñárritu’s concern of one stranger for another in Babel, in Biutiful this empathy/sympathy is underscored in the context of approaching death. The film is also a realistic attempt of a dying man putting the remnants of his fragile family in secure hands, when he eventually has to depart from this world. It is a film in which the director/scriptwriter uses the concept of death and extra-sensory gifts of communication to really communicate with different personalities already dead. Here is a film set in Bercelona, Spain, in which a father of two kids totally dependant on him reaches out to empathize with Senegalese and Chinese immigrants in Barcelona, as much as a woman who wants to love her husband but is in no mental state to do so without sending contrary signals, all of which are an extension of the essential idea of Babel, only more refined and escalated in a spiritual context. As in Babel, there is a closure offered in Biutiful achieved by doing good for the lesser privileged and the less understood by basic human goodness in human beings however outwardly corrupt they may seem. And this goodness, Iñárritu seems to emphasize exits in the common man, often representing the negative elements in our society (involved in peddling drugs, corrupt middlemen dealing with corrupt cops, and even cheats who sell gas-based room heaters that could kill from leakages).
Biutiful is a beautiful film, simply because the title is taken from a semi-literate urban street hustler’s attempt at teaching his kid how to spell the English word “beautiful” to his Spanish offspring learning English in school. The incorrect spelling of the title reflects beautiful aspects of the 'bad" people. The film Biutiful has an awesome screenplay that seamlessly combines parenting and death. The film is all about death but after you view the film there is good likelihood that the viewer will not consider it to be so but merely see the corruption, fragile marriages, drugs, immigration and gratitude for favours rendered as the more overriding elements than death itself.
Like director Carlos (Silent Light) Reygadas, Iñárritu is an amazing modern cinematic talent from Mexico. Iñárritu’s forte is to link various subtexts of life in a larger mosaic of life that is positive and giving, not destructive and revengeful. There are contradictions that the movie throws up: good people can get killed (e.g., the Chinese lady who baby-sits Uxbal’s kids, Uxbal’s wife who loves her husband but sleeps with his brother).
In Biutiful, a dead kid wants to set right the wrong notion with his parents about a stolen watch. In the same film, the bad conscience of Uxbal prevents his communicating with the recently dead Chinese woman and child, who were his well-wishers. A Senegalese immigrant could walk out on her benefactor Uxbal and return to Senegal with a wad of cash but prefers to stay back and thank her benefactor by taking care of his kids. None of the characters are essentially good “individuals” or heroes of our society, yet Uxbals of any society mean well and are silent heroes in their own limited space. That is the irony captured by the misspelled title.
Biutiful is a tale of generations: Uxbal and his father/grandfather, Uxbal and his children, the Senegalese couple and their child, the Chinese woman and her child, and a dead Barcelona kid and his parents. It is also a tale of a man realizing his role in a limited canvas of history in the winter of his life (literally at a snowy locale). The movie is dark but an uplifting undertone reflecting the goodness in most of us.
Biutiful proves Iñárritu is convinced of the larger cosmic plan in a seemingly chaotic world. Biutiful is not about rational abilities and actions of Uxbal, but then what is rational about any one of us? Can one really deny that communicating with the dead is impossible? The string music of Gustavo Santaolalla (Director Michael Mann, who has a great taste for music, used Santaolalla's music in Collateral) often emphasizes the irony that the script offers. Here is a film that unlike Babel is able to flesh out the main lead character, provide great music and offer tale that you can reflect on even after the film has stopped rolling. And more interestingly as a director he has an interesting and arresting way of depicting death—not very much removed from a somewhat similar depiction of death by director Semih Kaplanoglu from Turkey in another remarkable movie made this very year called Bal (Honey) that won the 2010 Golden Bear at Berlin. Both Bal and Biutiful are spellbinding films of 2010. The world is indeed small and interconnected.
P.S. Iñárritu’s Babel and Reygadas' Silent Light have been reviewed on this blog earlier.