Recalling “Biutiful”

Self is reading capsule movie reviews in The New Yorker. The first one is for “Biutiful.”

Self learns the name of the actress who plays the “irresponsible and overbearing” wife of the hero: Maricel Alvarez. The woman has a whippet-thin body and an almost-ugly face (dominated by a huge nose). Self remembers a scene where the mother is home, everyone is home. There has been a power failure, all the ice cream in the freezer has melted. The mother serves the ice cream to her recalcitrant children. She encourages them to imitate her as she scoops soggy ice cream from a carton with her fingers. It is the gross-est scene imaginable, since self actually finds Marambra, the wife, despicable and doesn’t know why Uxbal, Javier Bardem’s character (What kind of a name is Uxbal? Sounds Basque? Self is sure she never heard of a Spaniard going by this name) puts up with her shenanigans.

The review is written by Anthony Lane. Oh, he does have a fine turn of phrase!

Spoiler Alert!  Spoiler Alert!

Lane writes of Bardem’s character: “Here is yet another role that steers him toward indignity (Uxbal has terminal cancer), but Bardem never milks it . . . ” And, as if unbidden, in self’s mind arises the memory of Uxbal alone in the bathroom, naked except for a diaper. His body is still beautiful, and Bardem plays the scene with absolute humility.

Later in the film, a young Senegalese immigrant proves to be a crucial element of the plot: she moves in with Uxbal after her husband has been deported to Senegal. As Uxbal weakens, she is there to feed him and to walk his children to school. Finally, in gratitude, Uxbal gives her a secret stash of money. At first she demurs, but he makes her take it.

Then we see the young woman seeing the children off to school. She waves, is friendly — but why is she carrying that unusually lumpy knapsack? All this time, self prayed the movie would have a happy ending. But it was here, when the Senegalese mother bid good-bye to Uxbal’s kids, that self knew that the woman was preparing to leave.

The movie cuts to Bardem, weakened and fragile, alone in his apartment. Someone opens the door and goes through the apartment, but does not enter the room where Uxbal is lying. The door to Uxbal’s room has a smoky glass panel, and Uxbal can see the shadow moving down the hallway. It is night. The shadow undoubtedly belongs to a woman. But who?

It is moments like these that give the film its melancholy power.

He calls out the Senegalese woman’s name. “Is that you?” he asks, mortally ill, suffering. A woman answers, “Yes, it’s me,” but we never actually see her. She passes the room without entering. Is Ana pretending to be the Senegalese woman to spare her father any more disappointments? The voice and figure are small. The scene will always be a mystery. Next, Ana and her father lie side by side on his bed:  Uxbal is telling his daughter a story.  The story is about a ring he inherited.

The beauty and horror of this movie are perfectly encapsulated in that ambiguous scene, which never actually gets explained: Who is that woman who just entered the apartment? Is it the Senegalese woman, is it his daughter Ana? The voice is muffled, so we can’t be sure.

Self would like to believe it was the Senegalese woman (She realizes how vested she is in the prospect of Uxbal having a woman who is concerned for him — at last!) but then the scene ends, and we never do find out who that was that walked in the door, when Uxbal called out. Ah, what grief! In subsequent scenes, the family is by itself, so perhaps she did leave. Perhaps she used the money Uxbal gave her to run away, perhaps to her home country, there to be reunited with her husband.

And now Uxbal is seemingly in the last throes of his illness (Why doesn’t he go to a hospital? Isn’t there medical insurance in Spain?). He lies in bed, weak and exhausted.  His daughter lies next to him and they talk. Soon after, the film ends.

Wonderful, wonderful movie.

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