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CINEMA Death’s dominion Biutiful



an there be a virtuoso film about dying? After the quiet contemplation of mortality

in the recent Of Gods and Men come two films by well-known directors that attempt grapple not just with death but with what may come after.

Biutiful, by the Mexican director Alejandro

Gonzalez Iñárritu, is set in Barcelona but the city here is not the sun-dappled metropolis of holiday posters. The central character, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), is a go-between for disparate groups. He manages gangs of illegal immigrant street traders from Africa and he supplies Chinese labour to construction sites. He is also psychic and he sees the deceased, as they watch their own corpses, and when they communicate with him he relates what they say to their grieving relatives –for money. As the film opens, Uxbal is forced to some personal reckoning. He is himself seriously ill, maybe even facing death. He fears failing his two young children and an estranged wife (Maricel Alvarez in a luminous performance) who suffers from a bipolar disorder. The film has various kinds of hell. Unlike Iñárritu’s previous films – Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel – it confines itself to one narrative, albeit with supernatural episodes. Like those films, Biutiful was shot by cinema - tographer Rodrigo Prieto. It is, as the title implies, stunning to look at although the

was a Franco-German affair from 1964, directed by Jean Sacha, with an Austrian front-man (Robert Hoffmann) whose dubbed version – this one inferred from some of the curious pronunciations – was pitched at the Western end of the transatlantic market. There were fascinating continuities: Henry Deutschmeister, its producer, had worked on the last Laurel and Hardy film, Atoll K (1951), also known as Robinson Crusoeland. Filmed in the Canaries, in somewhat

Spartan conditions (“Did you live the life?” we heard Hoffmann being asked in the 1990s. “Oh yes, absolutely … There was a little hut where we got fried rice”), the production involved one major last-minute change of plan.

Robert Mellin and Gian-Piero Reverberi’s sumptuous score, acclaimed by the resident musicologist for its harmonising of late-eigh- teenth-century maritime and 1960s sound effects, was composed in a week, after the producers reckoned the original music too Gallic for Anglo-American ears. Reverberi almost forgot its existence until, attending a

scenes are often of extreme poverty and degra- dation. This can have an unsettling effect as if the director were luxuriating in the misery although his intention is clearly to re veal in detail the life of a city beneath the bourgeois veneer.

Bardem is on screen in al most every scene and with remarkable intensity conveys Ux - bal’s guilt and pain – emotional and physi cal, accompanied by gruesome medical symptoms. Aside from a few domestic scenes, it is a film of unrelenting sorrow. Iñárritu says his pur- pose was on the one hand to illuminate the plight of immigrants from China or Africa or even other parts of Spain who coalesce in Barcelona and on the other to reflect on life and its inevitable loss. Modern society, he believes, suffers from “profound thanatopho- bia”. Uxbal finds some resolution as he proceeds on his journey and if the film never seems quite to rise to the grandeur of its framework, perhaps that was impossible. Iñárritu set him-

continental fashion show, the familiar strains broke once again upon his ear. Naturally, Defoe’s original could not be ignored. Here Mitchell was candid: he found the book tedious and repetitive, and preferred the film. As for Sacha’s take on this elemental tale, body count, attitude to slavery (“Me, mas- ter,” Robinson lectures his accomplice at one point, “You, Friday”) and scenes of drinking and smoking prompted suggestions that a twenty-first-century version would have to wait until after the watershed. Significantly, the video reissue was awarded a PG certificate by the censors.

Scourings of the televisual vault nearly

always involve a last-minute dash to save the originals from destruction: Tim Beddows’ account of how he tracked down the tapes, together with the music, was par for the course. But this was wonderful stuff, as redo- lent of one’s childhood as a brass threepenny bit, the pieces of an Airfix kit laid out on the dining-room table, or the hideous shriek of Slade’s Noddy Holder inviting the audience to join his fun. D.J. Taylor

self a considerable challenge to engage thanatophobes while offering them few con- solations – save the sincerity of Bardem’s performance. Clint Eastwood is a director you might asso- ciate with the unexplained (or at least the unspoken) but not particularly with the super- natural. Hereafter, though, is a series of more or less linked narratives of people who seek or have connection with the dead. Set in the recent present, it begins with an extraordi- narily vivid and frightening depiction of the 2004 tsunami. The film’s producers include Steven Spielberg and this sequence is so immediate and detailed in the manner of great events in the Spielberg oeuvre (Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun, etc.) that he must surely have overseen it. This opening ends with a French journalist,

played by Cecile de France, unconscious in the water, peering upwards into a light tunnel in which blurred figures hover. In another strand, Matt Damon plays a man who, like Uxbal,has a gift for contacting the dead, man- ifest by sudden flashes of the same vague illuminated place. This process, which can be triggered simply by the touch of a bereaved person’s hand, distresses him; he tries to avoid it by changing job and even continent but grieving people still seek him out. Although we see and hear what he says to them, we are never shown exactly what he himself experi- ences.

Both de France and Damon give quietly persuasive renditions of people who believe there is “something beyond”, but the film gen- erally suffers from being in a kind of limbo itself. Eastwood clearly has sympathy for their sensitivity and yearning but does not want explicitly to endorse their belief; the latter part of the film satirises the charlatans who profit from those who seek connection with the dead. Although Eastwood’s minimalist approach has worked well in the past, it does this particular theme no favours. The cold colours he often employs seem here to drain the living of any vitality and aside from the principals, not all the acting is great. After that fantastic opening, it drifts on – neither drama nor dream – to a puzzlingly conven- tional romantic ending. Francine Stock

29 January 2011 | THE TABLET | 25


Alvarez and Javier Bardem in Biutiful: ‘a film of unrelenting sorrow’

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