The Eye of the Beholder
(Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico / Spain, 2010, 148 minutes)
The dilemma presented by a title like Biutiful is that any attempt to ‘explain’ it is highly interpretive and risky. I’m aware of the subjectivity of such an enterprise but perhaps there is something to be gained from venturing to decode it.
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is asked by his daughter, as she does her homework, how to spell ‘beautiful’ in English. “Just the way it sounds”, he replies, “just the way it sounds.”
The obvious discrepancy, accentuated by Uxbal’s ignorance here, between the appearance of beauty and its true nature, which we often miss, is the natural conclusion to draw from this. All well and good: this idea chimes with our growing appreciation Uxbal, whom gradually we learn is a fine man in desperate circumstances. Then there is the urban decay of sub poverty-line Barcelona – a grotty visual context which has not right to be beautiful but is, thanks to the poetry of Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork. Perhaps though, the title is about the illusion of beauty altogether. Its absence. It is a misnomer, as unattainable to Uxbal and his society as good health, a stable income, a stable mind.
That I’m not sure which of these meanings the film supports isn’t necessarily a criticism – ambiguity is the fuel of thought after all – but when a narrative sprawled across 148 minutes is riddled with as much unrelenting pain and suffering as this film is, one might question sincerity of its title. Undeniably, Biutiful contains deeply touching moments affection, and the promise of a sweet hereafter is intimated in the film’s coda. But if the conspiracy of tragedy that engulfs Uxbal seems contrived, its counterbalancing optimism feels like a stick-on afterthought.
Those unused to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s impressive corpus (Amores Perros, 21 Grammes, Babel) will probably be shocked by the severity of Biutiful’s content; fans used to his work may be shocked by its untidiness. It is not as geographically ambitious as his last work, Babel, whose message was the interconnectedness of man, stretched from Mexico to Japan. But still Iñárritu is fascinated by the effect one man has on his social environs, both immediate and removed. A sub-plot involving Uxbal’s dealings with immigrant Chinese manufacturers exemplifies this. It is a sympathetic, noble and powerful provocation of the viewer’s Western Guilt. But the film is overwrought, and some strands of its narrative (such as this) might have benefitted from being cut. This movie contains enough narrative, enough raw story for three or four affecting films. Iñárritu appears unable to simply include extras: everyone must be a fully fledged character, their backstory disclosed.
For this reason, Biutiful is an exhausting viewing experience, but the weight of mishap has an unfortunate desensitising effect. There is a surprisingly misguided quotation from Empire Magazine on many of The King’s Speech posters around Britain at the moment: it says, “Like all great films it simply fills you with joy”. I would argue that this is demonstrably untrue; a film needn’t be feel-good to be great, and Iñárritu has demonstrated this before with Amores Perros. But neither a does a saturation of heavy misfortune in a film automatically determine greatness.
Biutiful is not the best work that either Iñárritu or Bardem have ever done, but its unremitting bleakness does not go so far as to invite terms such as ‘poverty porn’, with which some described last year’s nauseating Precious. It is altogether too subtle and plural in its scope to leave its audience feeling used. It traverses race, politics, immigration, religion, responsibility, loss and horror with an acuity that would render any individual one of these extremely potent. But my dissatisfaction with the film, and it’s title, would seem to stem from its desire to do too much, leaving me unsure of what it really wants to say.
I wonder if the title was chosen, like Babel, as a pan-linguistic term. It is untranslatable (or unnecessary to translate), which not only helps with a film’s distribution, but again speaks to the universal connectedness with which Iñárritu is so often concerned. So it could be a title that transcends translation. Or perhaps it is a cousin of something like “Godot” which instead flirts with, but ultimately defies translation – the word thus alienating itself and its referent from those who seek its meaning. For me, Biutiful falls between the cracks of these two interpretations. It cannot decide whether its outlook is despairing or revelatory; and I cannot tell whether I am meant to see a beauty within, or notice its lack.