The Underworld Of Barcelona: Biutiful

The Underworld Of Barcelona: Biutiful

Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Optimum Home Entertainment 

Release date: May 16th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 148 minutes

Original language: Spanish with English subtitles
Country of origin: Spain, Mexico
Year of production: 2008-2009

Director: Alejando González Iñárrit
Writers: Alejando González Iñárrit, Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo
Producer: Alejando González Iñárrit, Fernando Bovaira, John Kilik

Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez and Hanaa Bouchaib

Official Movie Site

“Beautiful” might not be your first choice of adjective to describe its namesake, Biutiful, Javier Bardem’s latest attempt to win every acting award in the world. It may not even be your second. “Torturous” and “harrowing” are more likely candidates for the top spot, with one of “gloomy”, “lugubrious” or “depressing” a shoe-in for runner up.

But in honour of the victim of last week’s electoral travesty, let’s take a broader sample. There are many words to describe the distressing, but very few- in fact just one- that exactly expresses the peculiar phenomena we humans like to call “beauty”.


There is no danger of “lovely”, “exquisite” or “pretty” dividing the vote here. So under an Alternative Vote for aesthetic judgements, as everyone’s third choice adjective, it could be that Biutiful is elected just that. And despite the half-brained totalitarianism of 70% of the 40% of the electorate (who deserve the coalition of “harrowing” and “lugubrious” they’ll have to settle for), it is most definitely the better description of this savagely tender film about love, kindness and family at the brink of destitution.

Felon and family-man Uxbal (Bardem) has a lot on his plate, and luck to make the hereditary curse on the House of Laius look like a minor fall in the commodities portfolio of a billionaire.

Any one of poverty, despairing children, excruciating guilt, a horrible upbringing or inescapable criminality would surely be quite unfortunate enough to merit its own film by award-winning purveyor of realist desolation Alejando González Iñárrit, who- to give you some idea of his temperament- calls his other three movies the “Death Trilogy” (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel).


Add to that unhappy menagerie not just an alcoholic bi-polar prostitute for a spouse who happens also to be recreationally sleeping with your brother, but also terminal cancer of a variety which literally adds insult to injury by surprising you with sudden explosions of hematic incontinence – and, poor Oedipus, poor Uxbal, poor Clegg! I’m afraid you were born under the wrong stars.

But with death approaching Uxbal can at least strive to set his tumultuous affairs in order and achieve something like salvation. Oh- and he’s also a medium. I almost neglected to mention that he sometimes likes to provide transcendental succour for grieving families, which is an odd thing to forget, and tells you something about its diminutive role in the film. It may sound ridiculous but this supernatural detail sort of works, just figuratively blurring the margin of life and death to sweeten the sentiment of deathless love.


And that’s about that for unfortunate Uxbal. The idea is to test his spiritual capacity for suffering and show the durability of love throughout. It’s kind of self-flagellating and Catholic, which you may or may not enjoy depending on your disposition.

But if the personal story is a heart-rending ode to love and fatherhood on, say, the French horn, it floats out of a stark, unflinching State of the Nation tableau. About two-thirds of the way through there is an eloquent panorama of the Barcelona skyline which contrasts the Gaudi cathedral, cranes and skyscrapers with the foreground of slums, which neatly paraphrases much of the diagnostic content of the film. Corrupt, divided and directionless, Biutiful sees Spain as still well within the shadow of Franco and forty years of fascism.


Underlining this is Uxbal’s father who died in political exile before he could meet his son. In a very deft touch, his body must be exhumed to make way for a property development- suggesting (should we leave buried? Should we bring to light?) something of the complex relationship Spain has with its past.

Immigration is a prominent theme, woven into Uxbal’s fate and commingling nicely with his redemption. The imbroglio of disorganised crime sees him dealing with penniless African street salesmen and homosexual Chinese sweatshop owners as well as cops, whose racism brings out the latent xenophobia the movie wants us to see. The message of common humanity is a sickly commonplace now but stands out here for the pathos of mutual suffering, which is taken to delirious- but never histrionic- extremes.


The film is technically superb, which has a lot to do with esteemed cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Meticulously shot in bleak blues and greys, Barcelona (or the part of it that this milieu inhabits) is a grubby desolate place, washed in the jaundiced winter light and yet somehow still never far from the ethereal.

Visual interest is extended to some well deployed imagery too. A growing congregation of bats on the ceiling of Uxbal’s bedroom seem to augur his death, but when one night he looks up to see them gone it becomes clear- to us, to him- that it was not death but his fear of it that they represented. It is quite a trick to change the meaning of a symbol by its absence; and this example is characteristic of the subtlety of the visual language throughout.


  • Director’s Flip Notes (21:42)
  • Interviews with Javier Bardem
  • Marciel Alvarev, Eduard Fernandez (8:17)
  • Biutiful Crew (4:02)
  • Trailer (1:59)

The urban soundscape, augmented by a feverish, eclectic score, is notable for its depth and clarity. And of course Javier Bardem, who has the emotional range of a Beethoven string quartet, defies hyperbole.

Still, many will find Biutiful protracted and gruelling. It does ask a lot. Certainly towards the end I felt my sympathy beginning to wane with my attention, which is a pity as it was then that I began to feel it was repaid.


Some might disparagingly point out that it’s all a bit melodramatic, which on paper it certainly sounds, though I think off the reel it avoids any histrionics. There is a bizarre and misplaced nightclub scene which I can’t forgive however, though in another movie- in another world- I would perhaps have liked the giant breasts which the strippers wear on their heads.


I didn’t intend to give Biutiful top marks but having thought about it I can hardly award it less. It’s a huge sprawling city of a movie, containing multitudes besides and within Uxbal’s story. If anything it’s too big, too busy, too long- and yet still lucid and coherent. I suppose it suffers in some ways for the scope of its ambition, but the counterpart of that is so much detail to applaud.

If I were to roll the meaning up into a ball, and it looks like I am, I might say that in the final audit of life, when you add up all the good and subtract the bad, you’ll have an infinitely small remainder one way or the other. The film tries to do this moral maths in the ugliest conditions. Its answer is in the title

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