Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has more diacritical marks over his last name than the length of it can handle, an apt metaphor for what’s wrong with his latest film. As mere mortals, filmgoers have a quota for how much tragedy they can absorb before zoning out and wishing they were watching Schindler’s List instead of Biutiful. Just as the suffering of a few people affects us more deeply than seeing statistics of wholesale slaughter, the piling on of terminal cancer, mental illness, child abuse and abandonment, environmental pollution, slave labor, exploitation and corruption, immigrant alienation, adulterous betrayals, the decadence of the west and the accidental murder of two dozen people effectively suffocate us so that we don’t feel any of it after the first hour. Lest you think I’ve exaggerated, I’ve left out the bedwetting, adult incontinence, chemotherapy, excrutiating pain, alcoholism and drug addiction that are also interwoven in this overstuffed tapestry of man’s fate.
Javier Bardem, he of the puppy dog eyes and artfully broken nose, plays the lead, a father of two children who are already scarred by their parents’ divorce and tentative reconciliation. Their mother is a certifiable loony who has stopped taking her meds for bi-polar disorder and reverted to the fun of alcohol and sex, along with her inchoate longing for the sea that prompts instant recall of Melina Mercouri’s prostitute in Never On Sunday. The trope of promiscuity and its antidote in the cleansing waters of the sea is stale after fifty years of overuse and Inarritu compounds the cliche by having the bodies of the murdered immigrants dumped into that selfsame ocean and washed up on its shore. Aha - even the ocean is no longer a safe cinematic symbol because of man’s rapacious nature. Bardem plays a hustler who supplies African immigrants with counterfeit goods to peddle and monitors their well being along with that of the Chinese sweat shop employees who are housed like rats in a basement. He’s fundamentally a decent man trapped by all the aforementioned list of horrors and singled out for our attention as a death whisperer, a trait that both portends his future and indicates his spiritual sensitivity. Even he, however well-intentioned, becomes the instrument of death for the unfortunate Chinese workers, a sure sign of man’s original sin.
The cinematography is aimed heavy-handedly at all the ways in which contemporary man has corrupted his environment and his urban landscape. Smokestacks belch out dark, ominous billows of pollution; birds soar upward seemingly frantic to escape what’s below; t.v. antennas proliferate across the rooftops contrasting with the solitary reminder of architectural grace - a church girded for repair; an embalmed body requires a chisel to remove it from its coffin and relegate it to incineration. We are a very sorry lot. A key to Inarritu’s politics lies in his handling of racial differences in this film. Although both Caucasians and Asians are subject to the basest motives and actions, the black man remains the noble savage. At the end, the black mother (Madonna figure) has the opportunity to abscond with enough money to take her and her child back to Africa and away from the sordid west; it is no surprise that she opts for principled behavior and lives up to the trust placed in her by the film’s protagonist. As the continent most besotted with corrupt leadership and vicious rape, torture and extermination of its own people by their own race, Africa hardly qualifies as anyone’s safe haven.
The success of a filmmaker’s impact on an audience may be measured by how stunned they are at the end of a serious drama and the palpable delay in their rising from their seats. By the last frame of Biutiful, half the audience was already in the aisle - not so much moved by what they had seen but moving quickly as if running from an overwhelming tsunami of tragedy - commonly known as tsuris in Yiddish.
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