As my wife and I were leaving Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill Theatre last week, I was greeted by a gentlemen in the lobby who like us had just seen Biutiful, a Mexican film written and directed by Alejandro Inarritu. Summoning his best sarcastic voice, he proclaimed, “Well we sure are all better off now for seeing that one, aren’t we?” “Maybe we are,” I replied,. His face fell with disappointment, and he quickly turned to another: “Well that was pretty depressing, wasn’t it?” I didn’t stay to hear whether she reinforced his depression or not.
Biutiful is indeed a beautiful film, and in the end I did not find it at all depressing, given its overall life view. Admittedly, the story is about people who are down and out, in a world that promises little hope, but who at their core struggle to be loved, and to love. Set in Barcelona, Spain, a beautiful and romantic destination in anyone’s dreams, it’s a story of immigration abuse, drugs, prostitution, cruelty, desperate unemployment, sickness and death. What we see of human nature may not be pleasant to watch, but it is nonetheless human, and we have some obligation as human beings to feel each other’s pain, as well as beauty. It’s what art does for us. And after all, there is that which is “biutiful” in life, isn’t there, when we’re lucky, to compensate for the pain?
In this case there is Javier Bardem, playing Uxbal, a loving father to his two young children, an under-the-law trafficker in illegal immigrants, and a bit of a mystic who can communicate with the dead … all this while dying of prostate cancer. It’s not a pretty picture. But anyone who saw last year’s No Country for Old Men will know what a huge presence Bardem was on the screen as a hardened killer. Here he reveals his softer side, as he struggles to find deeper meaning to his life and assure a future for his children. Unlike my fellow film buff in the lobby, I did find myself a better person for bearing witness to Uxbal’s determination to move past his fear and angst, to find peace for himself and protect his children, despite all the odds against him. The film has some deeply Catholic overtones, but somehow transcends any mere parochial treatment of faith. There is instead, hope, and curiosity among people who wonder how they can endure so much pain and so little justice in their lives. Yet at the same time they find “biuty” in architecture, in nature, in snow, and in their children’s drawings. The film reads as a many-layered visual poem, not wallowing in the incidental misery it portrays, but challenging its audience to find what is beautiful in our own lives.
Biutiful was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Picture, as was Bardem for Best Actor. Neither won. Those films and actors who did win undoubtedly deserve praise for their efforts. And I wouldn’t dream of dismissing Colin Firth’s magnificent interpretation of George VI. But Bardem and the Biutiful cast rank right up there at the top with the others, and deserve to be experienced. Bardem has few rivals for a chiseled screen presence solid enough to take us through all of the agonizing seesaws of life on the edge.
A complete and total ASIDE, speaking of The King’s Speech, which I have discussed in an earlier piece: If anyone has not caught Tyler Perry’s satiric “trailer” for The President’s Speech, you have a wonderful laugh treat in store. It originally aired on Jimmy Kimmel’s late Show.
Among the other lost nominees in the gush of Academy hoopla were Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in the American independent film Blue Valentine, which was also nominated in the Best Picture category. In many ways it’s no easier to watch than Biutiful. But the film is ultimately so damn honest about just how difficult it is for human beings to hold it together that I was secretly hoping the top contenders might cancel each other out and give this little film the nod. In the end it no doubt boiled down to promotion budgets and movies with more upbeat endings.
Blue Valentine is about a contemporary marriage, and director/screen writer Derek Cianfrance has cleverly cut back and forth between the past and present to tell the story of how an apparently good marriage gradually falls apart. The progress from a naïve, young and vigorous true love to an inevitably tragic separation, and the circumstances of falling out of love, have rarely been treated so poignantly. Most of us, whether or not we have survived such an ordeal with marriage intact, will recognize all too well the painful elements of the struggle. Gosling and Williams are easy to watch, and the layers of emotion and disappointment they must endure are a huge challenge, that the two stars seem to bring off effortlessly and with enormous subtlety. They reinforce a longstanding bias I have for actors who don’t act. This is only Cianfrance’s second feature film, and easily deserving of top awards. He’s a writer/director to watch.
By the way, a very graphic oral sex scene, portrayed as an act of love between two married people, originally earned the film an NC-17 rating, before it was reversed on appeal. Since an equally graphic and much more gratuitous oral sex scene between two women was featured in The Black Swan, and only garnered an R rating, the validity of the whole rating system itself was questionable. What’s OK and what isn’t? Actually, I’m not convinced, prude that I am, that either scene belongs in a film that will inevitably be seen by young children, like it or not. Still, I’d prefer gratuitous sex to the gratuitous violence and potty humor that permeates PG rated films coming out of Hollywood these days.