A DPD Analysis of Biutiful
By Sean Michael Finn
Barcelona is a cosmopolitan metropolis situated on the Mediterranean Sea and further defined by the Collserola Mountains and the rivers Besos and Llobregat. The region and its corresponding urbanity historically identify as Catalan, as opposed to Spanish, and whose collective actions during the Spanish Civil War warrant its own unique chronicle (Blake, Hart & Kemp, 1983). The city had for some time maintained a unique trajectory until rapid modernization and a burnishing of its politesse contributed to its thrust into the contemporary age and subsequent hosting of the Olympic games in 1992; these successes have collectively come to be known as the “Barcelona Model” (Monclús, 2003). Critics of this model have contrasted an urban space’s use-value versus its exchange value where a space’s ability to generate a functional capacity for its inhabitants is directly in conflict with its ability to export its features, respectively, for capitalist venture and gain (Delgado, 2007 via Fraser, 2012). Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful (2010) visually dictates this tempered conflagration principally through the setting of Barcelona filtered through omission and sites of conflict or agony juxtaposed with venerated sites within the city primed for export-value: the film’s central figure, Uxbal, undergoes a cold examination for prostate cancer in the site of an unfinished La Sagrada Familia by Antonio Gaudi, a slew of Senegalese street vendors are arrested on Las Ramblas near La Plaça de Catalunya and a trip to the mountains in celebration of Ana, Uxbal’s daughter, is undermined by the moral and physical abilities of her mother, Marambra. As aforementioned, Barcelona is situated on the sea yet we largely hear only speak of it; there is no visual setting in the film that takes place in view of the Mediterranean save as the setting for the insecure and tempestuous burial ground of the untimely decease of a multitude of migrant Chinese slaves. What has been contrived for us is then an operable environment for the living characters of the film, who are considered to inhabit Barcelona, which either disavows access to certain areas of the city or assures conflict and disappointment in their vicinity; their Barcelona is therefore restricted to areas they may utilize, based on their station, to maximize their well-being which does not encompass the delineations that affirm the municipal setting of Barcelona.
European urban centers, like many others throughout the world, have undergone steady increases in migrants from Africa and Asia between 1990 and 2019 (Figure 13, IOM, 2020). The international community has been subject to an abundance of media evidencing the tremendous risk and subsequent manifestation of that risk in emigrating from areas overseen by more desperate environments governed by myriad merciless suzerains of various forms (See Anderson, 2000); in Senegal, for example, the willingness to migrate to Europe based on what may be consistent with unrealistic expectations is potentially worth one’s life (Mously Mbaye, 2014). Promises of the first world, whether vindicating risk or not, assure an increasing multicultural constituency seeking the excess wealth of European cities. Vitally, the empiricism that sought to establish the truth of race has been copiously upset but perceptual differences between individuals can racialize certain phenotypes and import the notion of an individual as incongruous relative to an accepted national identity. In Barcelona or Stockholm, this perceptual affixing can limit an individual’s access to employment, housing and increase their likelihood to undergo traumatic experiences of discrimination (Hellgren, 2019). Additionally, from the peripheral assignment of migrant and minority groups, though excluded from a national identity, inclusion from immediate neighborhood relations may promote a sense of belonging and shared experience (Hellgren, 2019). Taken together, this infers, to a certain degree, that class may be partially race-based, especially as minority or migrant groups are driven together by similar societal prejudices. From Biutiful, classes of immigrants from China and Senegal are banded together, largely in their own communities, evidenced by the experiences of Ekwueme, from Senegal, and the illegitimate manufactory run by Hai who, along with his seemingly indentured or more consistent with the depictions, enslaved workers, are from China. Though Lili from Hai’s factory oversees Uxbal’s children frequently, no Chinese-Catalan is seen to interact with any non-Chinese-Catalan save Uxbal. The same is true for Ekwueme and his cohort of Senegalese street vendors, save the illegal pedaling of their wares necessarily brings them into negotiation with consumers. The mis-en-scene of Biutiful thus promotes ethnic isolation by provisioning for and populating exclusive spaces with these constructed, enforced, and therefore banded groups.
From Biutiful, femininity is regarded largely through the characters Ige (whom we will omit discussing here in favour of the hereafter), Lili (whom we will entirely omit as she seems to function as an emotional catalyst for Uxbal’s reaction to the death of her and many of her Chinese worker companions given her emotional connection to Uxbal’s children), Marambra and, to a more reduced temporal exertion but greater spiritual power, Bea. From Maternal identities and abject equivalence in Biutiful, Lorraine Ryan contends that through the use of Marambra and Bea, director Alejandro González Iñárritu legitamises and reinforces “patriarchal, Judeo-Christian and racial privileges” relative to maternity. Marambra’s maternal ability is thwarted by an extramarital sexual willingness and recurrent, crippling bipolarity while Bea “references both the pre-Christian and Christian veneration of motherhood in Mexico” (Ryan, 2018). Marambra is unable or resistant to consistent relegation to a traditional maternal role and the sickness affixed to her character has been rationalized as a penalization for resistance to this conservative feminine archetype (Ryan, 2018); her long term emotional tendencies, abuse of her son Mateo and affair with Uxbal’s brother Tito all indicate cooperation with her as a “flawed behavioural model for her children, and by extrapolation, as a failed neoliberal subject, who is needy and dependent” (Ryan, 2018). Bea, in contrast, functions as Uxbal’s mother both by affinity and necessity: Uxbal’s mother died when he was quite young and it appears Bea was a neighbor and yet still further, Bea and Uxbal share the capacity to interact with the deceased and aid them in attaining the plane succedent to the present. Bea consoles Uxbal in all of his sins and uncertainties does not permit him to give way to defiant sentimentality in lieu of dying and allows him certain amulets in the protection of his children once he has crossed over. Finally, Bea “encapsulates the spiritual and medical essence of Uxbal’s redemption, and serves to implicitly critique the neoliberal emphasis on materialism to the detriment of the spiritual” (Ryan, 2018) and in conjunction with Ige, provides Uxbal with the fortitude essential for the temporary departure from his children.
Uxbal exists at the intersection of several worlds that are but one. Not only does Uxbal function as the pivot between several illegal migrant enterprises, but he also serves as a courier for bribes between those enterprises and the force, the police, that would be mobilized to stifle that enterprise should their operations exceed the social bounds appended to them. Furthermore, Uxbal officiates the interactions between the deceased and those who seek their recently revoked confidence. Uxbal provides opportunity wherein may only be regarded unlikelihood and as one who operates as sentinel at these transmigrational cosmopolitan junctions, Uxbal’s person is conditioned by injustice. The mass of disenfranchised, with Uxbal as their courier, serve to cultivate, thematically, notions of spectre or revenant where we, as viewers, are positioned to conjecture “that to live a just life we must bear responsibility to those who would be considered victims of history: those who have suffered violence, injustice and even those who have simply been forgotten” (Derrida, 1994 via Connolly, 2015). Ultimately, Uxbal does not exist outside of this chain of causation: Biutiful is pregnant with the suggestion of his impending death. He will unquestionably cross over and it will be those who succeed him who must lay claim to his inheritances which will also entail his agonies, those belongings that were his which did not wholly depart with him. The film’s diegesis favors a circle; where the story was begun is the place wherein it will terminate. In the beginning, Uxbal is transported to a snowy wood where, as the film advances we come to understand, his father awaits to take him to the place where the father has been abiding all this time. Uxbal’s father was classified as undesirable in Franco’s Spain and fled to Mexico while Uxbal’s mother was pregnant with Uxbal; his father would come to die in Mexico and the father did not come to know the son. At the end of the film, the end of Uxbal’s life among Barcelona and his children, he is again in the snowy wood; he has come to travel, guided by his father who is himself a maintained memory, to his Father’s house. Uxbal has become like all those whom he has known and corresponded with, a one only to be recalled in the minds of those who remember him or only those capable of knowing. Thus, in recollecting knowing or knowing recollecting, what justice?
Ige survives Uxbal and comes to be the bearer of his children into the future. She who has traversed the regions between Senegal and Spain to come to reside in that Barcelona deprived of the sea now comes to inhabit a particular position in that place. She has come to know Spain by her desire to secure a more sustained life for her and her family. Uxbal’s death brought to her a sum of money sufficient to satisfy her economic requisites that was allotted by Uxbal for the security of his children at the time of his death; Ige, securing the symbol of her migration, sought to return to Senegal to be reunited with her recently deported husband, Ekwueme. Her position throughout the film is largely enveloped by narrow, circumscribed spaces save the moment she has secured Ana’s and Mateo’s monetary inheritance and awaits departure from Spain in a large terminal. The sky and possibility seem to open for her and she is no longer reduced by her paltry means to generate an abode; herein lies the crux of the piece: capital alone is insufficient unto those to whom injustice is not estranged. The kingdom is only worth what is spent to secure it and right action is a more stable mortar than shame. Ige’s action to return to a dying Uxbal’s bedside, to return to charge herself with the ward of his children, fashions, at myriad rank, a niche Barcelona contrary to that Barcelona unto which we have been subjected. Furthermore, it is that seed that vindicates and weaves the laurels of knowing that is also a willingness to remember; summarily, knowing is remembering and in remembering, one could not come to forget.
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