The Biutiful Art Of Survival: Iñárritu, Intimacy & A Quadrilogy Of Life
Posted on November 14, 2014
‘Biutiful is a tough film,’ says director Iñárritu in conversation with The Telegraph. ‘It doesn’t make concessions to the vulgarity of light entertainment. It’s not the kind of film that you see, every day, in the Cineplex. But as an artist, it’s the thing that I needed to do.’
If Iñárritu’s first three films can be described as a ‘death trilogy’, the director’s fourth film is a cinematic ode to the subject. Biutiful’s main protagonist Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is dying of prostate cancer and the film traces the last days of his life.
As with Iñárritu’s previous films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel), death and separation are used to illuminate a series of related themes many of which are shared with his earlier trilogy. Fatherhood, globalisation and brotherly rivalry all feature heavily in Biutiful. Iñárritu also revisits similar visual motifs: animals, insects, lingering shots of ceilings (the last thing his dying protagonists see). Even 21 Grams‘ images of flocking birds, caught against calm twilight skies, make a re-appearance as Uxbal contemplates mortality and guilt.
Yet Biutiful is tonally and narratively different from Iñárritu’s previous films. Rather than the interlocking stories of his trilogy, Biutiful focuses on just one man’s perspective and it’s told in a straight line. The film marks Iñárritu’s first screenwriting collaboration with Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo, with whom he also collaborates on Birdman. While their story expands on the trilogy’s themes, the linear narrative results in a film that is much more intimate. Iñárritu was so committed to the intimacy of this sequential approach that he set about filming Biutiful in chronological order, rooting his cast in the screenplay’s delicate character developments. Biutiful is primarily a character driven film and Javier Bardem delivers this with magnetism.
Intimacy & Linear Story-Telling
This affinity with the characters is enhanced by Iñárritu’s visual style. Barcelona is captured in a palette of blues and greys and there’s a grainy, gritty quality to the visuals that evoke the city’s harsh realities. Uxbal’s Barcelona is one of poverty, exploitation and crime, despite his best efforts to be a good man. There’s a contradiction in the film’s title here – between Barcelona’s reputation as an attractive capital city and its disadvantaged inhabitants. We see Barcelona through Uxbal’s eyes.
Then there are the scenes of happy family life that Iñárritu sparsely inserts into the film. The dinner table forms the director’s focal point. He captures Uxbal frying fish then serving his children breakfast cereal that they happily pretend is hamburger and fries. Later, Uxbal reunites with his bipolar ex-wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) in an effort to find a carer for his children. A warm natural light basks the family as they laugh around the table, eating ice cream from the tub with their bare hands. Both scenes invite hope into Iñárritu’s bleak film, suggesting there’s beauty in life even during its most saddening times.
Iñárritu is creative in kindling this intimacy. When Uxbal’s daughter Ana learns his illness is terminal they embrace. The sound of their beating hearts plays over the scene as they hold each other tightly in the darkness. As Uxbal accepts his own impending death, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto switches aspect ratios, opening up the screen on an icy blue dawn, above a deep blue ocean and ceaseless waves.
Physical versus Metaphysical
Iñárritu’s intimate approach enables the writer-director to explore the contrast between physical and metaphysical more thoroughly than ever before. In 21 Grams Iñárritu focussed on the physical decay of the human body and the separation of death. The presence of the soul was suggested by the body’s loss of weight (the title’s 21 grams) at the precise moment of death. Through the character of Uxbal, Iñárritu not only explores the disconnect between the human desire to live and the physical reality of our mortal bodies, but also explores the passage of souls, visually depicting this transition from life into death in a beautiful scene at the end of the film. Despite frequent suggestions from characters that ‘death is not the end,’ Iñárritu leaves the ending of his film open to interpretation. Are these the confused thoughts of the human mind in its final moments, or is this really an afterlife?
We first encounter Uxbal in a funeral home where he communicates with a dead child, encouraging the soul to pass on. Later, after a tragic accident, he is surrounded by souls. They cling to the ceiling in visuals which suggest a physical barrier between this life and the next. Iñárritu and Prieto succeed in blending this supernatural element with the realism of the film. The images are emotional and moving.
Neither does Iñárritu equate notions of an afterlife with a specific religion. Uxbal’s friend tells him ‘the universe’ will take care of his children. It harks back to those ideas of fate and inter-connectedness raised in his trilogy, but is also suggests the natural, organic qualities of death. Echoing this, Uxbal dies quietly and peacefully, yet Biutiful encompasses other types of death too, including the sudden and unexpected, and this torture, this struggle to live, is visible on the faces of the dead.
This survival instinct penetrates Iñárritu’s whole film. Marambra fights for a different kind of survival – that of an ordinary life – as a result of her bipolar disorder. A homosexual Chinese business man (working with Uxbal) fights against his sexuality for a typical family life. Even those themes of globalisation and family, that echo Iñárritu’s earlier work, are explored in such a way that they enhance this exploration of survival. Iñárritu himself describes ‘the architecture of the film’ as ‘much more complex than any film I have done,’ and this becomes clear when we examine the intricacy of his themes.
Take Uxbal’s morally dubious business operations. He works as a middle man between counterfeit goods producers and illegal immigrant street sellers. Later he brokers a deal with the construction trade on behalf of the Chinese bosses who are exploiting migrant workers. As with the rest of Iñárritu’s film, this economic and global issue is explored at a micro-level, as an intimate examination of people desperate to survive, and it interplays with emotions inherent in the human condition: guilt and moral duty. Uxbal feels this most poignantly as he faces up to the consequences of his moral failings in the wake of death. Ige, the wife of an illegal immigrant faces her own dilemma – personal survival versus duty – when Uxbal asks her to care for his children upon his death.
Even Iñárritu’s focus on family and generations works as an extension of this survival instinct. In another of the film’s plot strands, construction work means Uxbal must move the body of his dead father from its resting place. He comes face to face with the embalmed body of the father he never met. In these brief moments, Iñárritu conjures an emotional connection between the two that transcends death. Later, Uxbal explains the significance of a ring given from his father to his mother, before passing it on to his own daughter. Uxbal survives through flesh and blood, through his children, the relationships he has built with them and the social histories he is so desperate to share, just as his father did before him. The corporeal passing down of this ring echoes the film’s metaphysical themes as Uxbal also gives his children two spiritual stones. In Biutiful the physical and the metaphysical are closer than we might imagine: a sentiment confirmed in the film’s exquisite and hopeful final moments.
Life & Living
It’s natural to view Biutiful as a film about death. It contains more deaths than Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel put together. Yet Iñárritu uses these deaths to shine a torch on survival and, ultimately, on life and living. Throughout the film, Iñárritu ties death to life in shrewd visual storytelling. The flow of Uxbal’s bloody urine is mirrored in Marambra’s pouring of red wine, a few scenes later, as she laughs and dances, naked, in the throws of life. Later, Iñárritu places his dying protagonist in a hedonistic nightclub scene, confused with emotion. The overt sexuality and transient connections the venue encourage appear meaningless through the lens of death and challenge our notions of what ‘life’ is about. Uxbal returns home and undresses, revealing disposable underwear to control his incontinence. Contrasted with the energy of the nightclub, his physical impotence and helplessness remind us to live life fully. Death enables us to perceive life differently.
Speaking to Collider in 2010 Iñárritu explained this further: ‘observing life through death, from the last point of it. The life has more meaning’. And again to The Telegraph in 2011: ‘Biutiful is not about death… It’s about life. It’s a hymn to life’.
It’s easy to see why Biutiful is often viewed as sitting outside of Iñárritu’s death trilogy. It has different screenwriters, breaks with the style of interlocking narratives and has a more intimate tone. Yet Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel share a similar attitude to death. These three earlier films focus on brotherhood, fatherhood, sexuality, communication, globalisation, spirituality and fate. They are, by no means, films solely about death and, instead, reveal life as perceived through its lens. With this in mind we can sympathise with Iñárritu’s own dissatisfaction with the label ‘death trilogy’. By focussing too heavily on Iñárritu as a director of death, the finer, humanistic aspects of his films can be too easily overlooked.
In its use of the linear narrative and intimate exploration of character, Biutiful takes us on a powerful, emotional journey. It feels like Iñárritu’s trilogy distilled and is a beautiful send off for this impressive body of work.
How do you interpret Biutiful and what does it mean to you? Let me know in the comments.
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Images: © 2010 Focus Features