This week’s pick is perhaps more somber than previous ones. I’ve been on a roll with the “feel-good” movies, but more often, my favorite films tend to be on the darker, more solemn side, and cinema, much like life in general, is anything but one-dimensional. “Biutiful” is the 2010 Spanish drama directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Nominated for Academy Awards in both Best Foreign Film and Best Leading Actor categories, the movie truly belongs to Javier Bardem, who stars in one of his greatest performances as Uxbal. Uxbal is a man living in the criminal underbelly of Barcelona with his two children and dysfunctional ex-wife when he is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.
Uxbal makes his humble living by finding work for illegal immigrants and by being a medium, communicating messages from the deceased as they move onwards. His world is rough and dirty, and in it you do what you must to survive and provide for your children. It’s a world we experience through the unsteady vision of a handheld camera and simultaneous focus of predominately diegetic sound rather than music. These techniques effectively highlight the perfect realness of the protagonist’s, the film’s, and general life’s imperfection. To keep up with the feeling of genuine reality and emotional sincerity, the film was shot in chronological order.
Throughout the film, it becomes clear that, although he is a good and compassionate man, Uxbal is not without his flaws and sins. One moment he’s playing make-believe while feeding his children, the next he is slamming his fists on the table and yelling at his son for tapping his foot. One moment he’s looking out for his workers’ well-being, the next they’re all dead because of a momentary lapse in judgment on his part. It’s almost as if goodness seems to evade him, that no matter how hard he tries to do good he is always knocked down by life and its many complications.
As Uxbal’s health deteriorates, he becomes increasingly distressed at the thought of not having done any good in his life for which to be honored after he is gone. For all the souls he has helped peacefully transition into ultimate death, he remains fearful and unready for his own death. What will happen to his children? Will they be provided for? Will he be forgiven for all his crimes and moments of impatience? Will his daughter, portrayed in a strikingly mature and poignant performance by young Hanaa Bouchaib, remember him? Still, despite the sheer messiness of his life, it is hard not to feel sympathetic towards him, because we all understand that life is never easy or simple. The incongruity of his love for his children, his desire to be remembered as a good man versus his life as a criminal and imperfect human being, is in itself a thing of beauty. Like the title, the Spanish phonological spelling of “beautiful,” the term “beauty” is redefined. It doesn’t exclude but rather identifies the profound significance in the reality of our imperfections that make our moments of good all the more beautiful. It may not be the correct way to spell the word, but in the end is there truly a wrong way to make something beautiful?