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Mortality's Dark Shadow Dominates Biutiful

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 07, 2013
Mortality's Dark Shadow Dominates <i>Biutiful</i>

DVD Release Date: May 31, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: December 29, 2010 (limited)
Rating:  R (for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  147 min.
Director:  Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu
Actors:  Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Haana Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernandez, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff, Cheng Tai Shen, Luo Jin

Hollywood may have embraced Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, but the director is showing no signs that he's been co-opted by the glitz and glamour of American studio filmmaking. The director's first film, Amores Perros (2001), was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. His next film, 21 Grams (2004), brought him out of the foreign-film "ghetto," netting Oscar nominations for Naomi Watts (Best Actress) and Benicio Del Toro (Best Supporting Actor). His next film, Babel, received the full embrace of the American film industry. Not only did it star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, but it landed seven Oscar nominations, winning one for Best Original Score. It seemed that Gonzales Innaritu was ready to "go mainstream."

But he hasn't.

Biutiful, his new film starring Javier Bardem—an Oscar winner himself for 2007's No Country for Old Men—is a dark film about mortality and the struggle to exist in a harsh world. The film is also Gonzales Innaritu's first major film for which he wrote the screenplay. That marks a break from his collaboration on the aforementioned earlier films, which were penned by Guillermo Arriaga.

Biutiful shakes free of Arriaga's tendency to write disparate scenarios that turn into interlocking stories—something that viewers had begun to associate with Gonzales Innaritu in much the same way they associate twist endings with the work of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. The film is also more dour and hopeless, even as it struggles to affirm life in some sense. Uxbal (Bardem) is an angel to the underclass in Barcelona. He navigates a world of foreign laborers, exploitative business owners and police officers who are willing to look the other way if paid enough. As he fights to keep the laborers employed and out of trouble, he faces crises on the home front. His health problems have sent him to the doctor, which leads to a terminal diagnosis and causes him to worry about the future of his two children (Haana Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella). Their estranged mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), has abused alcohol and drugs but says she's been clean and sober for several months. However, Uxbal can't bring himself to trust her after the betrayals that led to their separation, and to his assuming custody of their offspring.

Uxbal also profits from an ability to communicate with the dead. At funerals, he enters a room with the bodies of three young children. He waits. Suddenly one of the deceased children is sitting in a chair. "Why can't you leave?" Uxbal asks the spirit. "What is keeping you here?"

We don't hear an answer, but outside the room, one of the children's parents, knowing of Uxbal's "gift," asks what Uxbal learned. "I was able to help him on his way," Uxbal says, giving the grieving parent the solace he sought. The father hands Uxbal payment for his services. The same transaction takes place later with another grieving man.

Is Uxbal's ability to communicate with the dead real? The filmmaking leads us to believe that it is. We don't know how he acquired the ability to see dead people, nor do we hear the spirits speak to Uxbal. When he communicates a message to those left behind, we don't know if he's inventing the responses he passes on, especially with the desperate survivors waving money. But whether or not his ability to communicate with dead people is real as portrayed in the film, it's unsettling to watch. Scripture condemns the turning to such people for information or comfort (Leviticus 19:31).

Somber and downbeat, Biutiful is oppressive at times, but also extremely well-performed and directed. It casts light on struggling workers who try to survive day to day—a large group of people who are rarely the focus of films.

However, Biutiful is confused in its depiction of religion and the afterlife. Salvation is hinted at apart from any acknowledgement of sin, repentance or faith beyond the outward trappings of church rituals. While the film accepts the fundamental idea that the soul exists apart from the body, its focus on spiritism and psychic phenomena mitigates whatever truths the story reveals about human nature and our need for spiritual comfort.

Despite a strong performance from Bardem, Biutiful is a film of despair that doesn't earn, nor attempt to explain, the spiritual reward it sets aside for its lead character. A more serious exploration of spiritual issues from Gonzalez Innaritu will have to wait for future films, but on the evidence of Biutiful, he'll need a collaborator who is more grounded in spiritual truths.


  • Language/Profanity:  Variety of obscenities, including the "s" "d," "a" words and "son of a b--ch," as well as the several uses of the "f" word.
  • Alcohol/Drugs:  Several scenes of drinking and smoking, including drug use and sales; Marambra says she hasn't relapsed for five months, and says she's bipolar.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Marambra dances topless above Uxbal's brother while smoking and drinking, rejects his advances and slaps him; two men kiss, and one reaches into another's pants; reminiscence about sex while lovers caress and kiss each other; Marambra begins to unbuckle Uxbal's pants, but he stops her; scenes at a strip club show dancers in costumes that resemble body parts; a woman is shown breast-feeding.
  • Violence/Crime:  A dead owl; the self-administered drawing of blood; scene of urination reveals blood in Uxbal's urine; Uxbal is a middleman between immigrant laborers and others who move the merchandise; Uxbal pays bribe money to a police officer to keep him from raiding a sweatshop; drug-dealing; a man is struck by a car; a man is struck in the face by a club; vomiting; Uxbal attacks a man who won't pay him what he's owed; Uxbal touches his father's corpse; several dead immigrants, including small children, shown; a child has marks on his face, a sign of abuse; dead bodies shown in the water and on shore.
  • Marriage:  Uxbal has custody of his children, whose irresponsible mother, Marambra, visits and sometimes cares for them; she carries on an affair with Uxbal's brother; Uxbal tells Marambra their kids "can't wake up to a different daddy every weekend."
  • Religion/Religious Issues:  Paranormal visions of dead people, and an assertion of the ability to communicate with departed spirits, along with receipt of cash payment in exchange for communicating what he said and heard; Uxbal says he "helped" a child's spirit "on his way"; dead children shown in caskets; a church funeral; discussion about cremation; Marambra remembers when Uxbal read her palm; a woman assures Uxbal that "the universe will take care of" his children when he's dead, but Uxbal replies, "The universe doesn't pay the rent"; the woman says the dead suffer if they leave debts behind; she gives him talisman for his children; Uxbal says he tried to pray but didn't know to whom he should pray; woman tells him to ask the dead for their forgiveness; entrance into the afterlife cryptically pictured.

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