“The movie is like a Francis Bacon painting,” Javier Bardem says when asked to characterize Biutiful, the film in which he portrays a dying man who communicates with the recently dead while moving through a crime-ridden contemporary Barcelona that itself resembles some outer circle of the inferno. “Some people can take it. Some can’t. Some people can look at the surface and then go deeper to see the love beneath, the compassion that’s woven into the horror of life.”
Biutiful is the fourth feature from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Following his alternately acclaimed and denounced tripartite, “globalized” drama Babel, Biutiful is most closely related in ontological terms to González Iñárritu’s second feature 21 Grams. It’s his first movie in his native Spanish since his exhilarating multi-narrative debut Amores Perros. It’s also the first he’s made without screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. When González Iñárritu and Arriaga inamicably parted ways after fighting over credits for Babel, I wondered if their individual subsequent films would indicate which of them was responsible for the heavy-handedness and dependency on dramatic irony that increasingly plagued their collaborations. But both Biutiful and Arriaga’s recent directorial debut The Burning Plain make clear that the tendency was mutual. There are numerous moments in Biutiful that possess a certain penetrating eloquence, but they’re set within an at times oppressive framework far too eager to declare its self-importance, too proud of its fitfully successful attempts to say something meaningful about “the world we live in” generally, and the world of illegal migrant laborers specifically.
What makes Biutiful essential viewing then isn’t its socially burdened narrative or its ostentatious, immaculately crafted mise en scène—it’s Bardem’s impossibly rich, marathon central performance, and the way that performance is nurtured and heightened by González Iñárritu's precision approach. The shoot took place over five months, and as we watch Bardem’s flawed hero, Uxbal, wither away from the cancer that’s rapidly consuming him, while frantically trying to leave his children in the best possible position to continue in his absence, we’re watching a performance so immersive, so exhaustive, so rife with resonant contradictions, that by the end we can’t but feel we know this man somehow. We know he’s sick when the other characters don’t. We know his fateful errors in judgment and his efforts to do good. We witness his conferences with the dead, though Bardem never plays the supernatural bits any differently than the ones where he’s collecting money or feeding his kids. Uxbal clings to life while desperately maintaining some essential dignity, and when he’s finally forced to let go the loss is almost palpable in a way that the movie’s poetic intimations of an afterlife can’t diminish.
González Iñárritu and Bardem were promoting Biutiful during last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. We meet them in hotel rooms, separately, as though we’re interrogating them, hoping to pit one against the other in a ploy to get good copy. But despite the fact that the more divisive aspects of Biutiful could be regarded as representing a battle between Bardem’s deeply felt movie and González Iñárritu’s somewhat forced one, between an Oscar-nominated performance viewers are inclined to surrender to and a ruthlessly sculpted directorial vision some will be annoyed by, both artists make clear from the get-go that Biutiful is the result of a much-desired alliance. Bardem wanted to work with González Iñárritu, particularly for the way he works with actors, and González Iñárritu wanted to work with Bardem. The role of Uxbal, father to two children, husband to a woman suffering flamboyantly from bipolar disorder, and a sort of managerial figure for numerous underworld enterprises, was based to some extent on González Iñárritu’s own father, but written specifically for Bardem to interpret.
“Javier’s physically very strong,” explains González Iñárritu, “but, after having known him for eight or nine years, I know how delicate and sensitive he is on the inside. This Minotaur’s face of his envelops a poet’s soul. It’s a strange combination that attaches itself nicely to Uxbal, who’s a tough guy, a street guy, but at bottom is a vulnerable, sophisticated spirit. Primitive culturally, but spiritually sophisticated.”
When told about González Iñárritu’s assessment of his persona, Bardem considers this for a moment. “Tough on the outside and tender on the inside…” he says. “Like a melon!” We all laugh. “Melon Brando!” he then quips, and we laugh even harder. He immediately apologizes for the bad pun, but his ease and warmth loosens up the whole room. Bardem draws a curtain, pours himself some water, sits with us, rather than before us. He seems happy and relaxed, yet he’s frank with regards to the movie’s bleakness.
“Alejandro told me from the beginning that this was a tragedy,” says Bardem. “Like a Greek tragedy, where the gods enter the story in order to remind human beings how weak they are, how much help they need, and how little help they’re going to provide, because they have to learn by themselves.”
We discuss González Iñárritu’s infamous perfectionism, his habit of doing dozens of takes for every camera set-up. Bardem claims that while this approach can be draining it always led him to the best results. I tell Bardem that for all the scenes of intense drama, for me the most memorable was one where Uxbal openly confesses his terminal illness to a complete stranger in a noisy nightclub. The scene is moving because, in a sense, Bardem seems to just throw the line away, making nothing of it. Bardem, whose performances in Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside have already made him an old hand at on-screen death, points out however that even that scene was the product of countless takes and varying approaches. His performance only appears casual. But Bardem also acknowledges the importance of balancing lightness and weight when telling a story such as this, and credits his junior costars with helping him to map out his character’s degrees of gravity, as well as shake it all off when the workday is over.
“Alejandro didn’t want the kids to feel they were witnessing something real, something they’re going to bring home with them,” Bardem explains. “Everything was a game. Those kids would play their emotions and when he says cut they’d go back to their toys and do goofy things. That’s the way it has to be. You have to learn to detach yourself from the material at some points or you get lost in your own thing, and getting lost doesn’t help creativity at all. Some days were harder than others, but through the kids I learned how to go back to the days when I’d be playing a galaxy warrior one moment and then have to go home or off to class the next. I didn’t have to say to myself, ‘Hold on, I was just a galaxy warrior, how am I going to focus on the mathematics now?’ No. You jump. That’s what it’s all about. Be there, experience what you have to experience, but leave a little room in your brain where you tell yourself this is fiction.”
Death looms over every scene of Biutiful. It comes for Uxbal and it comes for many other characters too, especially those surviving on the fringes of the society. Death is finally the central theme of Biutiful: how to accept it, to prepare for it, to reconcile oneself to its mysteries—though it’s slightly less mysterious for the likes of Uxbal than it is for most of us. We see Uxbal in a wintry forest, a place resembling this world yet clearly not of it, a place where he meets someone from his past, someone long gone. Uxbal’s connection to an afterlife is no mere fantastic construct for González Iñárritu. It’s inspired by the director’s own experience with people who he feels possess a genuine ability to see things most of us don’t, things hidden from the established senses. As González Iñárritu sits perched on his chair, trying to come to terms with our questions about what drove him to make Biutiful, there’s an undeniable feeling that his encounters with such people humbled him, and are meant to endow the work not with despair but rather with a sense of wonder.
“The character of Uxbal’s spiritual advisor, or mentor, was based on a woman I met in a very rundown neighbourhood in Mexico City,” González Iñárritu explains. “It was cold out, and I was wearing all these layers, these sweaters and coats and scarves, so you couldn’t see any part of my body below my face, and yet this woman immediately knew that I’d recently had surgery. She didn’t make a big deal about it. She just asked me how I was recovering. These people, it’s not like they’re trying to see something—they just know it. It’s a gift. They don’t want you to pay them. It’s a kind of burden they carry. The good news, or maybe bad news, is that all of them say that death is not the end. On the contrary, it’s just the beginning of a long and fucking hard road.”