Last night I watched Alejandro Innaritu's latest film, Biutiful. I am a huge fan of Innaritu's work -- both Amores Perros and Babel are in my top 20 favorite films of all time -- and though they are both crushingly depressing, in many aspects there is optimism and hope within his characters' pain and tragedies. This is why I love them. Innaritu never ceases to pull the beauty from the devastation.
In Biutiful I was expecting something similar of the main character, Uxbal, masterfully played by Javier Bardem. But as the credits rolled in the end, all I felt was an extension of Uxbal's profound pain amid unfinished business...of the fact that maybe -- no matter what catch phrases and greeting cards may make us believe -- there is no such thing as atonement and redemption...not even when we're at the very end, desperately trying to do good in the final moments of our last breaths.
Uxbal runs a counterfeit ring in the slums of Barcelona. You know those Nigerian guys slinging fake Gucci bags and Chanel sunglasses on the street corners of every European city? Yeah, Uxbal is their boss, and he's also got a hand in the underground Chinese sweatshops who produce the loot. Immediately he's not a guy you'd think to empathize with, since he's...well, in the business of exploitation.
But Javier Bardem does an excellent job of making you feel for his character, who is essentially a single father with two young children and a bipolar, borderline drug addict wife/ex-wife, depending on what day it is. Uxbal's trade has not made him a wealthy man, as evidenced by the rot on his bedroom ceilings and the cereal he feeds his children for dinner every night. Then he starts bleeding urine and you know this definitely can't end well.
After finding out he's going to die in a couple months of terminal cancer, Uxbal tries to reconcile for all that he has struggled with -- not giving his wife what she needed, the crimes he has committed, being a better father, how his children won't have a proper caretaker once he's gone, who he will pray to when his time comes since spirituality, at some point in his life, seems to have taken flight and never returned.
Seeking atonement is a common theme, and one this movie illustrated well. But the hardest pill to swallow during viewing was the suggestion that atonement may not exist. Good deeds done in desperation, when your back's against a wall, may backfire and cause even more strife. People you think you can rely on, who you need to depend on in your weakest moment, may take what they can from your pocket and flee.
Though I found very little hope or optimism in the message of this movie, I liked it nonetheless. It was, like reality, raw and abrasive. Sometimes I think we need to be reminded of that: that most lives, unlike the way most films would make you think, do not end on a positive, reparative note. And that is biutiful.