Javier Barden plays Uxbal, who gets jobs for immigrants for a fee. At the start of the film we see Uxbal talking to his Dad in a snowy forest. He’s talking about owls spitting out fur balls. Then he talks with his daughter about a ring. Uxbal is diagonised with a terminal illness, he has only a few months to live. Uxbal is also involved in illegal activities among immigrants, we see the police rounding up some African immigrants. He provides bad heating for the Chinese immigrants and they die from the cheap gas. Uxbal is also a psychic who sees the dead and is paid to tell grieving relatives what the deceased is saying. He has a wife who is an alcoholic and suffers from depression, he takes his two kids from her. He and his brother exhume their father’s corpse and have it cremated, they need the money from his plot. Uxbal seeks advice from a fellow psychic and prepares for death. At the end of the film we are back at the snowy forest and the dead owl.
Maybe it’s me being horribly cynical, but this film gets up my nose and then gives me a pain in the neck. Recently there was an article on arthouse films and one journalist jokingly said that any film in Spanish is considered arty, especially when it’s got Penelope Cruz in it, or in this case Javier Bardem. Sitting through this film felt like being in a UN workshop: ‘here’s a film about me helping out the poor in Barcelona’. Inarritu, who directed this film is the guy who did 21 Grams, as you would expect, he’s hairy and wears a leather jacket. He is the thinking person’s Danny Boyle, without the hectic split screen or rock music, but he does have soulful shots of the Barcelona skyline (with the Sagrada Familia cathedral in tasteful silhouette), the mandatory guitar solos, the soulful piano music. We also get shots of the chattering classes’ favourite martyrs: the immigrants living in poverty, overcrowded Chinese. I half expected a Pablo Nerudo poem to make us sob. This is coffee table poverty for the smart set, the sort who get to know the Vickys and Christinas of this world in Barcelona. This is poverty-ridden Barcelona for those who visit the tourist bits so they can wallow in their arty concern for the downtrodden. I bet the actors and film company sat in an arty studio around a barbed wire coffee table swapping solemnities and concerns for the poor. No doubt somebody had a Miro on the wall. The film waves its camera under the nose of poverty in the most self congratulatory manner. It gave us overhead shots of the slummy areas of Barcelona, how very arty, darling.
Uxbal ‘helps’ and exploits immigrants from China and Senegal but when his negligence leads to the deaths by asphyxiation of some 30 Chinese immigrants he seeks absolution from his psychic chum instead of turning himself in on a manslaughter charge. Well, he’s dying anyway so we get terminal illness chic to add to the poverty, so he’s a good egg anyway, isn’t he? No he isn’t, he’s a petty criminal making easy money from a desperate underclass.. We get a scene where Chinese immigrants are washed up dead on a beach, that’ll make a good poster won’t it?
Uxbal’s wife is called Maransra and naturally she’s dysfunctional, she thinks she’s interestingly tasty. She thinks she’s a gypsy, she boozes, she takes drugs and she glories in being a feckless mother. She has sullen arguments with Uxbal and chucks her wedding ring at him, naturally, she’s one of Hollywood’s favourite house pets: the passionate Mediterranean woman. She is also bi-polar of course, what self respecting member of the coffee table slums wouldn’t own up to a colourful mental disorder? She flounces around, proud in her human wreckage status. She acts like a baby woman, not even bothering with the hygienic essentials in a poverty ridden house. This woman has obviously been to the ‘Penelope Cruz Academy for trashing Javier Bardem’s oil paintings in arty films’. Maramsra is obviously frustrated that Uxbal is a mere psychic rather than a painter whose works she can sell or trash.
There are some vivid scenes in this film which no doubt the broadsheet critics will call “poetic” and “elegiac”. No director who wants to be considered arty can possibly avoid succumbing to the stereotypes of metaphor. Here we get the wintry landscape where Uxbal meets his dad and we get arty stuff about dead owls and he makes onomatopoeic noises of the sea and wind. Ooh-er, pass me the poetry book.
Uxbal is too much the orthodox beloved of contemporary values: he’s fiercely protective of his family and will kill his brother if the said brother gets near his kids. Perhaps this is the film giving Uxbal absolution. It will appeal to the arty liberal mentality from which pluralist monoculturalism has grown: don’t judge, just try to look and understand. I think there could be a good dissertation on the infantilization of cinema since the Second World War. We seem to be steeped in a narcosis of adolescent posturing in films like this. Unlike Haneke, Innarritu seems unfazed by our easy vicarious enjoyment of shameful social reality, he opportunistically feeds it while we gratify ourselves on the patience of our intelligent perception. The very alienness of poverty to the affluent makes it colourful of course, we can surf it like sociologists.
The scene at the cemetery when they take out their father’s corpse is quite weirdly vivid, it looks like a ghostly vision all stark blue and white and makes me forget the general crassness. It’s quite a riveting scene.
The title of the film is cute and coy, it comes from Uxbal’s daughters’ misspelling of the word ‘beautiful’ and gave me a clue what to expect; well heeled artists tripping through art studio poverty.