You’d be forgiven if The Pursuit of Happyness first springs to mind when you hear about Biutiful; single fathers struggling to provide a stable life for their children and misspelt film titles dressed up as phonetic clarifications for the younger characters of each film. That’s as far as the comparisons will hold, though. Alejandro González Iñárritu has penned, along with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, a film much more ambitious in scope. On paper it’s a massive, overwrought plot with far too much going on. Javier Bardem is Uxbal, the go-between who negotiates slave labour deals with unscrupulous Spanish employers for illegal immigrants. In spite of wholly abhorrent circumstances we suspend our disbelief to accept that Uxbal is essentially a decent guy, readily sympathising with his struggles, especially as the odds are stacked against him. With a bipolar estranged wife who is sleeping with his brother and a devastating diagnosis from the doctors, the jeopardy is fairly abundant. Oh, and Uxbal is also a medium who travels to wakes and is paid by the mourners to provide the dead with passage to the afterlife. Though not quite like Derek Acorah, much more brooding and Spanish.
There is a sense that Iñárritu – Mexican-born but with Basque heritage – is casting an eye back to Spain, exploring the implications of diaspora on identity. The film is majorly preoccupied with fatherhood and an affectionate paternalism appears from time to time. When Uxbal describes his father to his children, a political exile of Franco’s dictatorship who died shortly after fleeing Spain for Mexico, his fate is seen to be due to an unwillingness to keep his mouth shut. Uxbal toes a line between pragmatic opportunism that involves exploiting those who are trafficked and an inherited sense of social justice. State oppression has been replaced by the individual who is prepared to profit from human currency. The corrupt police officer, the Chinese sweatshop owner, and Uxbal himself rationalise their behaviour with the excuse of putting food on the table for their own families. The touches of magical realism that emerge throughout the film also signal a shared tradition with South America. The intermingling of generations from beyond the grave of the final scene calls to mind the village of ghosts of Pedro Páramo, by celebrated Mexican writer Juan Rulfo (incidentally, an adaptation of which by Mateo Gil and to star Gael García Bernal, has been stuck in production limbo for the last three years due to a lack of funds).
Barcelona is an omni-present force; the gaping chasm between the city’s outward-looking face, painted for an international palate, and the dank quarters inhabited by its stowaways, is striking. The rose-tinted, soft focus of Bardem’s outing with Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is worlds apart from the Barcelona of Biutiful. The Ramblas and the Barceloneta beachfront, among the city’s trademark tourist attractions, designed to cater to the moneyed foreigner are hijacked, and become the stage where the downfall of the Chinese and African characters who dared to aspire for a better life is played out.
At the heart of Biutiful is the suggestion that contemporary injustices are murkier than the clarity of the ideological struggles against fascism of the 20th century. And yet Uxbal’s moral compass is informed by that of previous generations. Iñárritu’s zeal for stories with an international perspective has never been so effectively realised. His idiosyncratic approach that was quirky in Amores Perros became fragmented and aimless in the Babel vignettes. Although the focus is largely on Uxbal (garnering Javier Bardem a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actor), the complexities of the surrounding characters are subtle yet captivating. Broad brush strokes are nowhere to be seen; the Chinese sweatshop has his own personal conflict to consider, compromised by a tug-of-devotion between his family and his gay lover. It is through Uge, the Senegalese woman who becomes surrogate mother to Uxbal’s children, that we see the possibility of hope. In a tender moment that hints at a shared future, she confirms that her son is named in honour of the erstwhile striker for Barcelona, Samuel Eto’o, when prompted by Uxbal’s youngest.
And if all that leaves you feeling rather heavy, with Heath Ledger’s Joker crowing “Why so serious?” in your ears, here’s a little light relief from Bardem, that’s over twenty years old, and provides a fortuitous segue from superhero fathers: