“Biutiful” is raw, dark, and moving. Set in Barcelona, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s story about a father’s love for his children exposes us to the dirty, harsh realities of surviving life in the underground. It is also a new kind of story about the presence, not the absence, of fathers, and the lengths one father will go to provide for and protect his family.
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) has custody of his son and daughter while his ex-wife Maramba (Maricel Alvarez) indulges in a life of sex, drugs, and other excesses. His brother runs a nightclub while Uxbal runs vendors who sell clothes, purses, and other goods, including drugs, on the streets and plazas of Barcelona. Uxbal acts as liaison between the African street vendors and the Chinese factory owners, Hai and Liwei (Cheng Tai Shen and Luo Jin), a gay couple who struggle with their relationship while exploiting Chinese men, women, and children for cheap labor.
If Uxbal isn’t running the streets making sure his men are staying one step ahead of the police, he’s communicating with the dead. He is also a gifted medium, often hired to attend wakes where he encourages the dead to cross over to the other side. He also shows compassion for the living as he regularly tries to negotiate better living conditions for the Chinese workers, some fifty or so people who sleep on the floor in a single basement room.
Meanwhile, Uxbal and his brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) are dealing with moving the remains of their father, a man they never knew, as he left Spain for Mexico when he was very young. When Maramba asks Tito which one of the brothers looks more like their father, Tito answers, “I don’t remember the look of his face.” Remembering the look of a father’s face seems to be the recurring theme in the story, as Uxbal wants to remember his father, and he wants his own children to remember him.
After a police chase, which scatters the street vendors through a packed plaza and into busy traffic circles, one of Uxbal’s employees, an African man named Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiave), is arrested and deported. He is forced to leave his wife Ige (Diaryatou Daff) and baby behind because life in Spain is better than life in Senegal. The caring Uxbal does what he can for the family.
The interwoven narratives are compelling. Everyone is connected to one another through Uxbal. Hai begins to lean toward a more compassionate approach to his workers and his partner Liwei feels threatened by this. Ige blames Uxbal for her husband’s deportation, but Ekweme insists that Uxbal is the only sincere man in the city that will help them. Uxbal’s children Mateo and Ana are his world; he makes sure he is home for dinner and he helps them with their homework, including spelling the word beautiful.
The cinematography and special effects are also intriguing. Because the story is told through Uxbal’s perspective, we see the dead he talks to. They appear in chairs by coffins or crawling on ceilings above him. We are also shown the dark allies, crowded tenements, and alarming factory conditions in urban Barcelona.
Much of the tension in the story is centered on Uxbal’s home life. Maramba comes back, which leads to a roller coaster of emotions between the couple. The children witness their fights, and Uxbal knows this is unhealthy for them. He is faced with making the decision to break up his family yet again.
“Biutiful” is not a picturesque movie about the beauty of Spain. It is a raw and intense look at how people in a shifting global community survive together in one place. Most of all, it is a story about a father who never knew his own, who will go to any lengths to be present for his children.
“Biutiful” is in theatres now.