I’ve been waiting for years to be able to compare an actor’s work to Marlon Brando’s performance in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris. And now, sadly that it coincides with the passing of Last Tango’s Maria Schneider earlier this month (Feb. 3), the time has come.
Alejandro Inarritu’s Biutiful is not to be taken lightly. First, the 47-year-old Mexican filmmaker gave us the unforgettable Amores Perros (2000), then the incomparably bleak 21 Grams (2003), which he followed up with the critically acclaimed, Oscar nominated Babel (2006) – all films dealing with intense heartache and loss. Biutiful ups the ante another notch, delving into the same themes as the prior three films, with one major exception: a central figure in the middle of the madness.
Javier Bardem’s performance in The Sea Inside (2004) blew me away. It came out the same year as Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby. Talk about apples to oranges. One was an NBC After School Special representation of euthanasia, the other was a gut wrenching dissection of the ultimate dilemma – whether a life greatly diminished by neck down paralysis is a life worth living. Bardem attacked the role with an utter lack of ego and the result was devastatingly effective.
Now we have Biutiful to hold up as the new standard. His new standard.
The story begins with a couple lying in bed, arms outstretched and entwined, staring at a ring on the young woman’s hand. We do not see their faces, but can tell from their whispered tones that they are young lovers on the verge of a life together. Such optimism. The young woman asks “Is it real?”
Next we see a man in a trench coat (Bardem) standing in a snowy wooded patch. A younger man appears a few paces from him. We have no idea what their relationship is to one another – their connection and dialogue is both intimate and cryptic.
And Biutiful never stops being simultaneously intimate and cryptic.
Bardem, who won the Oscar for his haunting hitman ‘Anton Chigurh’ in the Coen’s No Country For Old Men, plays ‘Uxbal,’ a single father hustling in the streets of Barcelona to keep food on the table for his two small children, vacillating between middle man nickel & diming for a clutch of Senegalese street vendors and a Chinese sweat shop – and, oh yeah, he makes a few bucks on the side as a clairvoyant.
‘Uxbal’ also must contend with his bipolar ex-wife, ‘Marambra,’ played brilliantly by the relatively unknown, Maricel Alvarez. Much like the way Tango’s Maria Schneider was able to counter the imposing Brando, Alvarez brings an honesty and sympathetic vulnerability to the role that is not easy to cast. Their volatile relationship, like so many, just cannot work – but they try – for the sake of their kids they try to provide a little stability.
But the moments of domestic normalcy are fleeting. ‘Uxbal,’ for all of his good intentions, cannot buy a break – and then he gets sick and his prognosis brings on a desperate urgency that fuels the story forward, one heartbreaking moment at a time.
At one point, after a heinous “accident” at the sweatshop, ‘Uxbal’ visits his clairvoyant mentor, an elderly woman who speaks directly and compassionately amidst his chaos, worrying about the future of his children. She explains to him “The universe takes care of your children. Get your affairs in order.” To which he responds through misty eyes “The universe does not pay the rent.”
There is a scene that follows where ‘Uxbal’ and ‘Marambra’ sit at the kitchen table with their two little ones. They have decided to try to live together again, for the sake of their children. ‘Marambra,’ who has not been a reliable or competent mother, wants desperately to be welcomed back into the fold and has brought their favorite ice cream. The erratic and nutty ‘Marambra’ digs in with her hand, scooping the ice cream to her mouth and enjoying it thoroughly. Her children don’t know how to proceed, whether or not their usually controlling father will reprimand them for bad table manners; but when he cracks a resigned grin and gives them silent permission…well, for anyone who comes from a broken home, it will break your heart as they all try, at least for a few moments, to laugh and love and stay together.
I was reminded while watching Biutiful of another foreign film I discovered and admired many years ago, Savage Nights (1992). A man dying from AIDS struggling to reconcile his life before it expires. I have yet to be able to revisit Savage Nights – some films are just too honest, too raw, too sad.
I have seen Last Tango In Paris several times, mostly to watch and learn from Marlon Brando. I will revisit Biutiful when it comes out on DVD. Not just to watch and learn from Javier Bardem, but to remind myself that it is real. This one life we get to share with one another.