Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Anything But Biutiful

by Drew Martin

On Saturday I ironed my dress shirts to Biutiful, the latest film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, I liked it...I like gritty realist films, such as his Amores Perros.

Biutiful stars Javier Bardem, who is one of my favorite actors, not so much for his mellow performances but because he has such an interesting, sculptural face to watch. It is rarely contorted with expressions and has a stillness, which allows you to really look at it instead of a projection of an overconfident Hollywood mask.

Part of the film samples the lives of immigrants in the sketchy parts of Barcelona, where Africans and the Chinese elbow their way through their personal Hell on Earth. These scenes did not make me feel like I was sharing their experiences, which is what movies typically try to do. I had quite the opposite feeling, like I never could understand that life.

I have lived abroad and worked odd jobs including construction in foreign lands. I have shacked up with Ukrainian workers in cheap laborer digs and waited on long bureaucratic lines for documents with too often ignored Vietnamese street vendors but I was always had an advantage. I had a US passport, an education, spoke English and I was a white guy in northern Europe. More important was the psychological state. When you put yourself in certain situations, it becomes an adventure and you have some kind of forcefield around you.

Closer to home, no matter how integrated I am with immigrant diasporas in America, I can truly never share their experiences. What I like about about Bardem's character is his confrontation with this barrier. He tries to get close and be helpful but there is clear division between him and the others. It is that advantage that puts him in a place to try to help them, even when he is in it for profit.

If there was ever a film about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions, this is it. The African immigrants he deals with are arrested and deported, 25 Chinese people are asphyxiated in the evening because of defective gas heaters he purchased to warm them at night...although he did buy the cheapest kind so he could pocket some money.

This is the one of the most important aspects of the film, his character's character flaw, which is simply that there really is no right answer. He yo-yo's his children from their bipolar, wreckless mother who abuses the son and sleeps with their uncle. When he feeds them, the meal is some kind of cereal biscuit, like a huge Shredded Wheat, which he loads with spoonfuls of sugar, while he and the child he is serving imagine it is something else. This is the sugar coating of their life but there is nothing sweet about it.

Despite the disconnect to those he cannot really help, Bardem's character is affected; he internalizes the plight of the others, which is symbolically represented by his physical demise. He is dying of prostrate cancer, which has spread like wildfire. He pisses blood.

The world that Iñárritu shows us is rotten, through and through: moldy and grimy on the outside, rancid and toxic on the inside. There is no peace; the dead are restless, still trying to escape this world. The Chinese corpses are dumped like trash in the sea and even the father of Bardem's character is exhumed in order to sell his place in the cemetery.

Hell freezes over in the afterlife, a snowy forest in the Pyreness where Bardem's character meets his father, who died before he was born. In this scene, which appears in the beginning and the end, you breathe the fresh, clean, crisp air and feel purified.