“I’m not going to die.”
“Yes, you are going to die – put your
affairs in order, Uxbal!”
We meet the protagonist of Biutiful
(Beautiful) – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s operatic fable of how a
simple, almost primitive slum dwelling hustler finds his soul at the brink of
his extinction -- Uxbal (Javier Bardem), in the dream state. It’s his
dream and he’s standing in a winter landscape – dotted with denuded trees –
striking up a conversation with a handsome young man. The talk is jovial but
oddly ethereal – what do owls do before they die? Answer: spit out a hair ball.
Awaking from this dream – akin to
being kicked out of purgatory and back into the messy specifics of life in
early 21st century Barcelona, the slummy part, not the part they
keep nice for foreign tourists – Uxbal finds himself dealing with a whole lot
of woe. A member of a despised minority – it’s almost as if he’s an illegal
immigrant in his own country – one of Uxbal’s many shady jobs is running
interference for and extracting money from undocumented workers, mostly African
and Chinese, dealing with corrupt employers – the most interesting a couple of
deeply closeted Chinese gay lovers – with venal cops, a bi-polar wife, Marambra
(a wickedly carnal, disorienting turn by Argentine newcomer Maricel Alvarez),
two kids who love him ferociously and need him desperately, a treacherous
brother with whom he’s negotiating construction scams and the sale of their
late father’s burial plot.
Uxbal is most oddly a bit of a
psychic, who is called upon by the parents of three dead boys to help guide their
souls into the afterlife, for which he accepts a small gratuity from the father
and curses from the mother who regards him as a worse than charlatan.
The story takes at first a halting
turn towards grace when Uxbal learns he’s dying – cancer has metastasized
through his organs and into his bones -- and his affairs are anything but in
Inarritu’s reputation rests on a
trilogy of films: Amores Perros (Love is a Bitch) featuring the
hot as a pistol debut of Gael Garcia Bernal; 21 Grams – career highs
from Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro; and Babel – a stellar world class
cast with Brad Pitt and again Bernal. In each part of the trilogy it’s a real
question whether the characters’ lives or souls are in greater peril. With
Biutiful Inarritu both limits the scope of his story while in some ways upping
the moral stakes. At first Uxbal fancies himself a good man attempting to
grease the wheels in a tiny rotten part of a world class city. But suddenly his
deeds acquire a body count – the most wrenching subplot finds Uxbal in a
hauntingly tragic fall from grace involving the Chinese gay guys and ironically
the life of a young mother who has sat with his kids.
Despite everything we’ve seen from
Javier Bardem – the Oscar turn psycho killer for the Coen Brothers; a wickedly
funny Don Juan for Woody Allen; the martyred gay Cuban writer for Julian
Schnabel – his Uxbal is still a revelation. In a film that overflows with more
than its share of various human waste products – Uxbal’s bloody urine is a mild
example – Bardem creates a character who achieves an unlikely state of grace.
His hustler kids himself that he’s saving his flock of
migrants while in fact he’s accidentally hastening their dates with the devil.
There’s not a hint of vanity in Uxbal’s descent into an emaciated kind of
anti-saint. In one grimly ironic moment, a cynical corrupt cop mocks Uxbal’s
pleas to help his charges avoid deportation with a grisly tale of a lion
trainer who forgot that you can never tame a truly wild thing. Uxbal’s toughest
decision is to cut off his bi-polar wife from access to their kids – Alvarez in
a riveting debut strips all the clichés from screen depictions of unfit
mothers. And without being the slightest bit homophobic, Inarritu allows the
Chinese gay lovers a sad dignity but no stay of execution.
My twenty-two minutes with
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ranged from his almost psychic casting powers to
the impossibility of even imagining a film at this point about his native
Mexico’s state of siege with the murderous drug cartels.
David Lamble: You surprised me by creating a gay
relationship between the Chinese guys who are exploiting their countrymen as
underpaid and mistreated construction workers,
Inarritu: They are part of the fabric of the story
and I wanted to portray them not as “bad” guys. It’s important to show that
these guys are fathers, but they have a very complex love which we are not use
to seeing because always it’s portrayed in this stereotyped way.
Lamble: Your discovery of Gael Garcia Bernal to play
the dog fighter who lusts after his thuggish brother’s girlfriend brought an
amazing visceral talent to the screen.
Inarritu: I met Gael doing an ad for a radio station.
I created a strange, very weird campaign that was basically a silent twenty
seconds. I had Gael sitting in bed and he began having a big emotion and that’s
it. When I was shooting Gael I saw his eyes and I was really kinetically
connected to him; I said, ‘If I do a film in Mexico, I will do it with him.’
Less than two years later we shot Love is a Bitch.
Lamble: Gael is astonishing in either gay or hetero
love scenes: his skin reddens and he’s all the way in.
Inarritu: We’ve stayed connected, by the way, we got
drunk together just a few weeks ago.
Lamble: Javier Bardem so disappears into playing
Uxbal that if we didn’t know better we’d think you just found him fresh off a
Barcelona slum street.
Inarritu: This film is character driven and basically
Javier’s consumed being that character for five exhausting months. Both of us
are intense, neurotic, perfectionists – I can be unbearable as a director, I
can ask for forty takes for a single glance to one side.
I had met him seven years before
during the Oscars at the “losers” party and we got drunk together. I needed a
character who is primitive with a great presence and also a very sensitive,
fragile human soul and Javier has this kind of gladiator physical presence but
he’s also a poet in a way.
Lamble: I know and your friends want to tell the story
of the horrible drug wars in your homeland but are probably stuck for an
Inarritu: There’s so much information and sensational
experience that it’s hard to metabolize it. It’s like we’re in a storm on the
surface of the sea but nobody’s looking at what’s creating it, at the epicenter
– there’s no perspective now. All of us are intoxicated by the violence and the
pain – it’s out of control. It’s the lack of education, the lack of culture
that we promised one hundred years ago during the (Mexican) revolution and we
I feel as if my country’s been
kidnapped by violence and outrageous ignorance. We’re going to get something
very interesting from this crisis. It would need humor, somehow.