African Thoughts: The world is both grotesque and biutiful
Review By Perivi John Katjavivi
Biutiful is a film from acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. His work often explores tragic characters in desperate situations and divergent narratives. Along with the
works of Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, he has helped create a renaissance in Mexican film. The three of them perhaps owe their unique bodies of work to the rich lineage of exceptional Latin American writers, such Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, who provided them with ideas of non-linear narratives and magical realism.
In Biutiful, we follow Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a mediator between the world of the dead and the world of the living. He has a gift of being able to communicate with spirits shortly after someone has passed — a gift he questionably reaps financial rewards from. This is a world filled with dreary characters that include his mentally unstable wife Marambra; his excessive brother
Tito and a fake designer bag selling Senegalese immigrant, Ekweme, amongst others: All of them desperately trying to survive in a grim Barcelona.
This is Europe like you have never seen it. This is a testimony to the global vision inhabited by the film’s author who has previously given us the much acclaimed multi-narrative Babel which spanned over three different continents and one Best Director Prize at the 2006 Cannes film festival, Best Motion Picture: Drama at the Golden Globes, and seven nominations at the 79th annual Academy Awards. His films seem to operate on a different level to most American or even International films as they speak to and for a world we rarely see.
Iñárritu’s Europe is incredibly topical as it mirrors the acknowledged financial difficulties that are now being experienced by the continent. It reminds us of how this continent as well as its currency have become more and more unstable, just as the lives of the characters in Biutiful experience. We are exposed to an underpaid immigrant workforce that in many ways is what
keeps Europe going.
Uxbal (Bardem) is as much a mediator between these worlds (immigrant & local, Spanish & foreign, legal & illegal) as he is between the living and the un-living. A middle man earning a take from the dealings of an array of struggling characters – whom he seems to befriend and grow close to. Feeling a definite sense of responsibility for each of them – this in some ways is
both a curse and a virtue. Uxbal’s character then takes on the role of a kind of tortured angel.
His best qualities are demonstrated when he looks after Ekweme‘s wife after he is deported back to Senegal. What is questionable is the role he plays in all of the illegal activities that he benefits from financially. This enriches Chinese factory owners who keep their workers in the most inhospitable of conditions, which later leads to a tragic outcome.
His supernatural ability to speak to spirits becomes a con, a hustle when he uses it to make money from grieving mourners. But is it wrong considering that he uses it to take care of his two young children? There are no black and white characters in this film only shadows of grey in a land where nothing comes easy and hearts have long since hardened. Bardem portrays Uxbal with a calm, patience, gentle, well-mannered nature and sensibility that earned him an Oscar nomination. So much in this film is left ambiguous, such is how the lines of good and bad are painted… vaguely.
Which brings us to the question of death and Uxbal’s mortality — We learn early on that he is in fact dying. With all this happening in his world Uxbal, like us, is undoubtedly questioning the Gods and why and what is the meaning of all of this. Just why is he dying? Is this a punishment of some kind for his role in minor criminal activity? Is it vengeance for the misuse of the divine gift that has been bestowed upon him? Or is it just unfortunate like everything in Iñárritu’s Biutiful seems to be.
Despite the many hurdles Uxbal seems to climb through he leaves in the end with such grace that perhaps he transcends the debate entirely. He loved his children, he did his best, surely nothing else matters, or does it? He leaves this world with a definite sense of having made some sort of contribution to the betterment of his offspring and with a closeness and affinity with his late father, whose candid conversation seems to represent some sort of Godly affirmation of Uxbal’s life choices.
The most interesting thing to me about the film might be the role of Ige played by Diaryatou Daff. She is reluctant to stay in Spain after her husband Ekweme has been deported back to Senegal. She only does so after both Ekweme and Uxbal’s insistence. She becomes Uxbal’s saving grace. As he grows weaker and that inevitable day draws nearer it is Ige that looks after his kids and takes them to school.
In the end Uxbal hands her his lifesavings asking her to stay and look after the children. Ige is seen walking through Barcelona central station in one scene pondering whether or not to escape back to Africa with Uxbal’s money… but she doesn’t… she stays. Suggesting a very interesting question…Is the answer to the problems of poor Europeans… the African woman? Is it women like Ige that will raise/ lead a new generation of Europeans as the continent too wrestles with its mortality.
The Western world as a whole has reached an apex where it can no longer lead the unsustainable dominance of a fraudulent global economic structure. One where corruption and gross inequality is inherent to its functionality. There is a growing greater role that immigrant (African and other) communities are playing in the Western world, but just how important are the women from these communities? Perhaps their role in this growing transition has been undervalued.
After watching Biutiful I find it hard to return to my regular weekend dosage of light rom-com’s and sci-fi flicks. It wasn’t the easiest of journeys but nonetheless Iñárritu has once again given a voice to the voiceless and asked us to answer some difficult questions about our decaying society and the fragility of our mortality.
The world is both grotesque and biutiful I can only pray you find your balance.