Iñárritu’s latest slice of urban transcendentalism shamelessly exploits underclass suffering in search of salvation
Ugly Truths. Film review – Tom Jennings
This Mexican director’s protagonists never meekly submit to fate or lack gumption, in gut-wrenching depictions of complex materialist spirituality which only fitfully overcome bombastic hubristic pretension. So in Biutiful, a single-father scrapes a precarious crust in crumbling proletarian Barcelona co-ordinating illegals – African street pedlars hustling drugs while flogging shoddy knick-knacks knocked-up by Chinese families slaving in a clandestine factory and freezing at night crowded into the basement. Mutual respect and empathy – his forebears having migrated from impoverished southern Spain – prompt Uxbal’s constant efforts on their behalf while safeguarding his cut. Ducking and diving amongst endemic traitorous corruption in local police, construction, gangmaster and nightlife networks, however, fails to stave off – and sometimes contributes to – regular mortal disasters. Faring scarcely better with family, he does capably parent young kids troubled by separation from their good-time-girl mother with whom he also tries – and fails – to accomplish rapprochement upon diagnosis with imminently terminal prostate cancer.
The film’s hyperkinaesthetic style and superb cast benefit from longtime production collaboration – especially Rodrigo Prieto’s virtuouso cinematography; though no longer Guillermo Arriago’s ambitious multilayered ensemble scripting (as in Babel, reviewed in Freedom, 21st April 2007). Instead of collective resonances of morality, mortality and agency among randomly intersecting circumstances and characters buffeted by capricious coincidence, this fable focuses on outrageous misfortune bearing down mercilessly on Javier Bardem’s world-weary fixer – habitually struggling to do the right thing in conditions overwhelmingly worse than wrong, except now with time painfully running out like the blood in his diseased piss. An apparently more traditional trajectory toward redemption is itself then thoroughly subverted. The overkill of tragic consequences utterly outflanks bungled, dutifully pragmatic individualism – in ruined African and Chinese lives (fully confronting the baleful wages of global neoliberalism’s specific marginalisations) as well as multivalent irredeemable dysfunctionalities in Uxbal’s own masculine physicality, sociality, kith and kin.
His orientation to catastrophe is inflected by a locally renowned gift for psychically divining dead children – a heretical working-class spiritualism worlds apart from official elite religious doctrine, imbricated in Catholicism but infused with the communal pagan folklore that evangelists always parasitised and poisoned. Neither its practitioners nor supplicants burden with rationalisations of supernatural pantheons, paradises or forces their hazy glimpses of restless souls – which are readily intelligible as unconscious projections misread as emanations from others whose motivations can thus be discerned. But such deep emotional connective tissue may underpin human solidarity, love and commitment as much as mere consolation and mass opiate sedation. Sidestepping Manichean judgments of sin or saintliness, Iñárritu hints at its utility when negotiating past and future unfinished business – which is only possible given a genuinely mutual recognition of needs. So, while often obnoxious, gratuitous and ridiculous, Biutiful’s black-magical realism somehow convincingly juxtaposes similarly surreal registers of memory, fantasy and imagination mingling with visions of the obscenities generated in the real world by modern minds, bodies and institutions – and, moreover, unearths hard-earned hopefulness amidst the horror.
Biutiful is released on DVD on 16th May.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 7, April 2011.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: