9 06 2011

I have a fascination with the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, though I don’t uncategorically praise all of them. In fact, I think his films have been going downhill since his first film, Amores Perros, in 2000. I still consider his first to be his best film, with 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) being of far inferior quality in my opinion. 21 Grams, another story about how an accident changes the lives of people, is at least watchable. Babel is, for lack of a better way of putting it, a preposterous movie, one that collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. The most elementary critique that one could make of Babel is that human beings in real life would never act that way. A couple would never just up and leave their two kids with their undocumented nanny for an unforeseen amount of time. Such undocumented nanny would not risk crossing the border back into Mexico expecting that she could just waltz back over the border with two gringo kids in tow. In my opinion, Babel was a sprawling mess weighed down by its own pretension. I found the movie to be barely watchable.

Thankfully, González Iñárritu’s trajectory as a filmmaker has swung a bit upward with his newest film, Biutiful (2010). Here the Mexican director and producer abandons the many interlocking stories technique to just focus on one story: that of a dying man trying to do the right thing, only to be frustrated by the hands of fate at every turn. As in the other films, there are no satisfying endings, no conclusions that make one unambiguously empathetic with any one character. And, as in Amores Perros and Babel, one of the real stars of the show is the neo-liberal capitalist social order itself: one in which society seems to be falling apart, and it is every man for himself. Even within these situations, González Iñárritu’s films show people trying to search for very traditional things (love, justice, redemption), even in their own distorted and frustrated ways.

A description of the plot is of course necessary. The film centers around a Barcelona man named Uxbal (played by Javier Bardem) who is making his way through life at the very margins of society. He makes his living as a sort of go-between and impresario for groups of illegal immigrants working in the underground economy of modern Spain. He also has a bi-polar wife who cannot take care of his two children, and is burdened with the ability to speak to the dead. The opening scenes of the film show him in a doctor’s office where he eventually learns that his terminal cancer means that he only has a couple of months to live. In a late effort at redemption, he tries to take better care of the undocumented immigrant workers who work under him. Unfortunately, virtually all of the Chinese workers in the sweatshop die from carbon monoxide poisoning from the cheap heaters he bought for them, and all of his African sellers get deported. His wife, who he tries to reconcile with, abandons their five year old son to leave on a trip, and Uxbal is then left with the agonizing reality that his affairs will not be tied up before his death. “The universe will take care of your children,” says his fellow medium mentor. Perhaps the real money quote of the movie is when his brother tells him never to take care of people who are hungry, especially if they have children, because they will only end up hurting you. Even more starkly, a cautionary tale was told to Uxbal of a zoo keeper who fed his tigers everyday as if they were his own children. One day, one of the tigers bit his face off and ate him. That seems to be in a nutshell what happened to Uxbal at the end of his life.

González Iñárritu’s main theme in all of his films is the impotence of human action. Uxbal cannot do anything right, even when he has the best of intentions. All of the characters of Amores Perros try to make things right in their difficult lives, only to have things go horribly wrong. Such is the fate of the three protagonists of 21 Grams, though at least two seem to find some redemption by the end of the movie. Babel, even as the bad film that it is, similarly portrays the inability to communicate with others due to tragic loss. The world of González Iñárritu is one where untainted personal victories and easy answers are never present. One must make one’s way through life without them.

I would also include in this mix of themes a more historical persepective. We learn in Biutiful that Uxbal’s father was some sort of trouble maker under Franco’s dictatorship who had to flee to Mexico, only to die of illness shortly after he arrived there. Uxbal in life never met him. One of the main characters of Amores Perros, el Chivo, was an ex-radical guerrilla who upon leaving prison becomes a hit-man working under a corrupt cop. Both modern Mexico City and Barcelona make for dirty and chaotic backdrops where the juggernaut of modern life is crushing under its wheels the lives of people who are just trying to do right by their families and loved ones. The undertone that I have always read in González Iñárritu’s films is one where personal impotence seems to reflect the fundamental political impotence of ordinary people, especially after the new period of “neoliberalism” in the 1990’s. The return to democracy in much of the Spanish-speaking world in the last part of the 20th century was only accompanied by greater economic inequality and corruption in society as a whole. Unlike previous generations where collective change was envisioned as possible, the only way out for people in today’s neo-liberal society is a sort of Darwinian race to the bottom.

And one really cannot hope for any more from his films, certainly not a “way forward”. Such solutions often seem glib when faced with a world that is changing so rapidly. Perhaps the most subversive thing in art is to leave things just as they are, without resorting to propaganda, to show that this is indeed the society we live in, and there is no easy way out. Besides, grander visions of utopia are precious little consolation to those who must live difficult lives in the here and now. Perhaps we all need those small, partial victories, as Uxbal receives at the end of the film, if not in this life, maybe in the next.



2 responses

9 06 2011

Arturo writes:
“Besides, grander visions of utopia are precious little consolation to those who must live difficult lives in the here and now. Perhaps we all need those small, partial victories, as Uxbal receives at the end of the film, if not in this life, maybe in the next.”

Perhaps that is what is wrong with much of our “God is Love” theology that solves the problem of guilt without calling for transformation. Yes, God, in an act of Unconditional Love, accepts us “just as we are”; but God also loves us too much to leave us “just as we are” in this world with an eschatological hope in “heaven” as our only hope. It is the small temporal victories in this life, over self and circumstances, that keep us from falling into despair.


Whose voice I hear in the winds,
And whose breath gives life to all the world,
hear me! I am small and weak, I need your
strength and wisdom.

LET ME WALK IN BEAUTY, and make my eyes
ever behold the red and purple sunset.

MAKE MY HANDS respect the things you have
made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.

MAKE ME WISE so that I may understand the
things you have taught my people.

LET ME LEARN the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.

I SEEK STRENGTH, not to be greater than my
brother, but to fight my greatest

MAKE ME ALWAYS READY to come to you with
clean hands and straight eyes.

SO WHEN LIFE FADES, as the fading sunset,
my spirit may come to you
without shame.

9 06 2011

I thought the same things about Babel, about how weird it is that a couple gets up and leaves to “find themselves” in Morroco. I also recently saw Biutiful and I just kept thinking “he should just dump his wife, take his kids to the mountains and die in peace making sure they are at least taught how to survive somehow.” For me, it just seems like you should take care of the ones you can, because even though you want to help everyone who suffers, you can’t help everyone. It’s not that “I’m # 1” all the time, but sometimesit’s me and my own are and sorry to the rest of you.

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