Today’s topic: the presence of death in film. It’s always there, isn’t it? That cold feeling in your stomach, afraid that the character you’re following might be a few steps away from his last one. Goose bumps. Will the movie end? What’ll happen if he/she dies? Death can be the running engine of an entire film. We wait for action, and often action results in a character’s death on-screen. It’s what sometimes stimulates us to watch the movie – we wait for something to happen, we wait for the story to unfold, we desperately need an event to occur in the last minutes of the running time. However, out of the many death-driven films out there (Mar adentro, Amour, The Downfall) the most curious and, oddly enough, beautiful one I’ve ever encountered is Iñárritu’s 2010 acclaimed drama, Biutiful. Ironic title.
Lead by a staggering performance given by Javier Bardem, the film tells the story of a man, named Uxbal, who is destined to die. Soon. And he knows it. That’s it. That’s the whole plot for those who’ve never heard of this project. Uxbal is as human as humans can get. His hair is becoming grayer and grayer, his skin pale as milk, his eyes like oil wells, dark. He lives in the rough neighborhood of Barcelona, where the tourists refuse to come visit. They’re right. Only a dead man like Uxbal can walk those streets. He’s got nothing to lose, yet at the same time, everything. His two kids, looking up to him. Looking up to who? A man who lives off other people’s lives. In this case, immigrant Asian workers trapped inside illegal underground workshops, sewing clothes that will end up on Barcelona’s black market. Uxbal treats them better than the usual smugglers, in some scenes reminding us of the good Samaritan. Does it matter? He is a criminal living off his last days. A cloud over his head, waiting for the right moment to let it rain.
Uxbal has powers. He hears voices. Spirits telling him the end is near. He urinates blood. Wipes it with a handkerchief. Does it matter? You’re going to go, old man. However, Uxbal is not afraid of dying. He knows it’s not up to him to decide. But he must fix some things. Fix the cracks he’s opened. He must put food on the table. He must kiss his little daughter’s forehead. He must teach his children a few valuable life lessons; no swearing, always fight for what’s right, never back down, and learn English. Death slowly creeps into Uxbal’s soul and body, weakening his physique, stepping on his back until he can’t stand up from the toilet. He coughs, and every time he does it, a minute goes by. A moment flies away. Uxbal’s ultimate goal is to get off the streets, stop the criminal activity. Stop the pain he’s been inflicting on other people his whole, entire miserable life. That’s when in one of his workshops there is a gas leakage that kills all the sleeping employees; women, elders and babies. That’s blood on Uxbal’s hands. It’s the ultimate punishment. A reminder that no one gets away without consequences. Death might take you away from the world you’re living in but it won’t take you away from your sins. There is no way out of that. Forgiveness is what he asks for. In vain. Death is no listener. You need to get dirty one last time. Uxbal does. Dragging out the bodies by night, to the beach, to the open sea, making it look like a refugee tragedy. The bodies, floating in the open sea are everything that Uxbal’s tried to fight during the last moments of his life. There is no redemption, no last minute salvation. It’s take it or leave it.
Uxbal cries. Death has stolen his tears. His cheeks are dry. Is he really crying? That’s what death does to you. It makes you wonder if you’re still feeling anything, if you still got what it takes to be considered a human being. It makes you think about all the evil things you’ve done while you were alive and hits you with the reality: it’s too late, old man. You’re gone. You’re history. Your thoughts, your opinions, your advice and suggestions, they don’t matter anymore. Your words of love, anger, frustration and happiness are gone with the wind. Uxbal spins around, takes a deep breath and looks up at the night lights of Barcelona. What now, spirits? Is it time? One last word to his daughter. The death of a criminal. A peaceful death. They hold hands. And while she admires his family ring, a beautiful object that has connected Uxbal’s predecessors since the early ages, Uxbal drifts off…
Uxbal’s in a forest. That’s death. Peace, quiet, silence. It’s snowing. A man appears out of nowhere. An angel? Uxbal’s lost father? They smoke together. Laugh.
That’s when Uxbal, for the first time in his life, feels clean. Saved.