Sometimes I Feel Like a Fatherless Child
A number of semi-supernatural movies consider the nature of “hereafter” and its impingement on here and now. Though it also has a touch of the paranormal -- rather unnecessary, at that -- in the ability to communicate with the recent dead, Biutiful instead zeroes in on individual confrontation with the end of earthly existence.
Details of that cancer-fuelled deterioration to dissolution are touched but not dwelt on. Given only months, Uxbal Gama (Javier Bardem, Best Actor at Cannes) needs to put his life in order in the face of the inevitable, come to terms with how he has and has not lived, find inner and outer resources, and make peace with his loved ones and his own demons. Most especially, he must find the deceased father he never knew, who fled under Franco, died on arriving in Mexico, was embalmed and buried back in Catalonia, and is now to be cremated after forty years so the cemetery niche can be sold.
Symbolized in the framing device of his grandparents’, then parents’ ring which he passes on to daughter Ana (newcomer Hanaa Bouchaib), and shown spiritually in opening and closing visualizations in snowy woods with himself and his young father, Uxbal and where he comes from and what will remain when he is no longer, are the generations of man, the cycle of life. Thus baldly summarized, the plot might strike one as sentimental; but thanks to powerful performances and tight storytelling -- a departure from director, co-writer and -producer Alejandro González Iñárritu’s trademark crossed narrative lines -- the result is a not less moving meditation on hurriedly getting one’s life and head straight in the final moments than is Kurasawa’s To Live/Ikiru.
Portraying the dark underbelly of the bright Barcelona of Almodóver and Woody Allen and of a xenophobic Spain that only in the past two decades has experienced an influx of Third World people of color, the story is two-pronged. Yet it is of a piece in that the central figure is involved in the sweatshop exploitation of illegals at the same time that he watches out for them to a point, and in that Chinese Lili and then Senegalese Igé (first-timer Diaryatou Daff) have baby children and take care of his Ana and seven-year-old Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) and at last of the disease-weakened hero.
Having made his mark as single-minded violent men who deal out death or single-minded soulful men who seek it out -- e.g., No Country for Old Men and The Sea Inside -- Bardem is here more layered, seen almost every minute, “carrying the film, literally, on his back.” Which is not to deny complexity to others, beginning with bipolar junkie estranged wife Maramba (a first film for Argentine stage actress, choreographer and teacher Maricel Álvarez), who deeply loves him and the children but cannot resist sexual adventures and partying; and continuing on through Igé, who knows “this is no place for us” and longs to go back home to deported husband Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye) but is too human to use Uxbal’s money or ignore his “I need you to stay, to help me.”
While selling the niche, Uxbal and brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) also sell the labor of the illegal aliens now flooding the Continent. The former is more directly involved, supervising Africans selling goods on the streets and, contrary to his orders and those of the policemen he bribes, drugs, and with Chinese families who slave over the knock-off goods and sleep on cold basement mattresses in Hai’s (Cheng Tai Shen) warehouse or are farmed out to dangerous construction jobs.
Faced with death and dealing with his unreliable wife’s ups-and-downs and their emotionally traumatized children, Uxbal finds unexpected purpose in those foreigners he contradictorily both takes advantage of and cares about. That part of it hits the fan when, from his act of kindness conditioned by money considerations, catastrophe comes. The police had been brutal with the undocumented aliens, but this incident is headline news, and there threaten to be official consequences.
A publicist remarked of Biutiful that is it “a hard movie but a good one.” Not so simple as that life is beautiful, it is about the unfair ugliness alongside the beauty, death and fear, physical and emotional pain, love and other relationships, and about roots and memory from generation to generation. There is no choice but to acquiesce to life’s whole package, to be faced en famille both immediate and human, and to be faced alone.
(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated “R” for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use.)