In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2010 film, Biutiful, modern Barcelona is anything but the romantic city Americans envision or visit as tourists. The city decays as the dying Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a small-time hustler with the power to speak to the dead, tries to glean an existence for himself and his family. Iñárritu has chosen to show us little in the way of commerce: no grocery stores or no gas stations and certainly no office parks or shopping strips. Uxbal’s world is one of cracked concrete and concentrated people all scraping to survive.
Uxbal serves as a liason between two Chinese businessmen who run a sweatshop that produces knockoff designer goods and the Senegalese street vendors who sell them. He is also responsible for paying off a local police officer. Despite the bribes, the street vendors, including Uxbal’s friend Ekweme, who also sell drugs to supplement their income, are raided by police, beaten and deported. Uxbal brokers a deal to get some of the Chinese laborers to work for a construction company where Uxbal’s brother is a foreman. When he buys faulty heaters for the basement where the laborers sleep, they are poisoned by the gas and die in the night.
Given a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer, Uxbal is forced to reconcile with his alcoholic wife for the sake of his two young children. But though there is a hint of a reconnection, she is mired in prostitution and drink; neglecting and abusing the children as soon as Uxbal relinquishes some of the parental responsibility.
The American audience understands the failure of the European economy in terms of how it will effect our own. Americans are accustomed to despair and anger after the monthly unemployment rate rises from 7.1 to 7.6 but 20% unemployment is truly shocking when translated from statistics to actual people. Economic stagnation is nothing new to Spaniards. Iñárritu does not aim to educate an ignorant audience.
Bleak is the word, so bleak in fact that Uxbal’s diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer seems only fitting. He is broken man, trying to fix broken people in a broken city. Biutiful is the story of arranging for life after.
On the surface, Uxbal is making preparations for his family. He does his best to secure income and to steer his hopeless wife in the direction of responsible parenthood. But Uxbal is interested in perpetuating life in a Barcelona that seems on the brink of utter collapse. Like Uxbal, Ekweme leaves behind his wife, Ige, and baby, Samuel who cannot afford to return to Africa. Uxbal gives his wife money and employs her as a nanny for his own children. For these people as well, Uxbal tries to create an existence. But why? Uxbal’s actions may be strictly benevolent, but as a medium, he knows that the dead are condemned to continue living in the world. Uxbal can find no comfort even in the thought that he won’t be around to see things get worse.
Just as Uxbal understands that there is an endless perception following death that dwarfs the understanding of the living, Biutiful uses poverty only as a backdrop for a story of magical realism. In a magnificently understated way, Uxbal has the power to communicate with the dead. Given this power, Uxbal must understand his imminent death in a uniquely knowing way. He hears the voices of the dead in their suffering, in their longing to touch the ones they’ve left behind. If Uxbal is afraid for himself, it is because he knows he will be condemned to the same fate. He will not be leaving his children behind, but from the prison of death, will be forced to surrender his ability to protect or comfort them while he watches them suffer.
Ige establishes herself in Uxbal’s home, but it isn’t until she decides to stay in Barcelona that he dies, content the world without him, though far from perfect will be sustainable even after he dies.