There is a moment in Biutiful where Uxbal, played wonderfully by Javier Bardem, begins to urinate into a toilet bowl. Instead of urine, we see blood and hear sounds of agony. The day that scene first played out to my witness, I paused the film and began to cry profusely.
I saw Biutiful in 2013. I had just discovered the works of Alejandro G. Iñárritu and was relentlessly powering through them. But I wasn’t powering through these films as a means of simply devouring the director’s filmography. I was keeping my mind occupied.
A week prior to watching Biutiful, I had developed a strong stabbing pain in my testicles. Initially, I had expected the worst. The big C had finally claimed me, I thought, almost constantly. Cancer had by then claimed several of my family members, including the person most important to me: my grandma.
Having spent years of my childhood and teenage years in and out of hospitals with family members, I had developed a serious fear and aversion to illness. I had also become accepting of death and that I was one day going to die,and thus, as a debilitated hypochondriac, I never really valued my own existence.
The pain in my testicles wasn’t excruciating, but it was constant. A stabbing, yanking and dulling feeling that simply would not leave me alone. I was drinking water in excess out of nerves and then worrying that I was urinating too frequently (a sign of cancer, I would discover). In hindsight, I can calculate with logic that I was urinating frequently because I was drinking water by the gallon. Back then? You couldn’t have convinced me that this was anything other than a doom-spelling symptom. Sleepless nights, endless terrifying Google searches, and periods of absently staring at the wall soon followed.
I could have put my fears to rest, or faced them, if I had simply visited a doctor. But to me, having watched as several close family members had tragic information delivered to them, a doctor was the person you went to to confirm bad news.
And I couldn’t face it so I watched movies.
When my blu-ray copy of Biutiful arrived, my pain was still there, but I was excited by the prospect of watching another Iñárritu film. I had honestly avoided any sort of synopsis or review of the film. If I had known that it was about a man suffering from terminal prostate cancer, I would have chucked the disc in the trash and returned to gnawing at my nails and staring at a wall.
Instead, Biutiful changed my life.
Biutiful changed my outlook on life. After I had seen Uxbal urinate blood and face his own mortality, I knew that I was watching something that would stick with me.
The quiet tracking shots of a poverty-stricken Barcelona offered solemnity. Iñárritu’s blending of soft and strong blues echoed my clouded mental state. His initial version of Barcelona–the one not so readily exhibited by travel magazines and Instagram posts–pursued the murkiness of society and how quick we as humans are to push negative thoughts and images to the corner of existence. The inside of my mind was Biutiful’s Barcelona: chaotic, messy and crowded with negativity. But, as the film evolves, we learn the real beauty of this part of Barcelona: its people. My mind craved that side of things, positivity among negative thoughts and images. The hard-workers, the socially marginalised, the family providers–Iñárritu endlessly gives a voice to the self-sacrificial working class in a way that transforms the initial thoughts of his Barcelona–messy and decrepit–into an insight of beauty within struggle.
The supernatural element of the film, its sombreness and quiet, was comforting. Some have branded Iñárritu’s 2010 film as excessively bleak and dark, but it is more than just an exercise in bleakness. Biutiful is a film that utilises its subject matter to explore the beauty of life and mortality. Anyone going through a rough patch, particularly in regards to facing the idea of death, may find an uplifting element laced through this film that others might have missed. That’s what I found.
When Uxbal learns about his cancer, he keeps it away from the people that matter to him. He is someone who has carried out bad deeds in his life and, as a by-product, values his existence very little. His mother is the only one privy to his health and, even then, she shows more emotion regarding his health than he does. As the film unveils its spiritual core and grows in runtime, Uxbal becomes more open about his mortality. He cries and spends endless time with his children. He works tirelessly to sort out all of his matters to allow his children a comfortable life when he departs.
Iñárritu deploys the 180-degree rule regularly to mirror various themes of the film. For one, spirituality and mortality. There are various moments where the camera floats around conversations, but the 180-degree rule is only ever employed when Uxbal is in the shot. This is effective because it’s a metaphor for him crossing over to the afterlife and learning to balance life and death. This is supported by the beginning and ending of the film: the beginning elicits dark connotations for the audience yet the ending, exactly the same in its structure, carries a profound beauty and moment of reflection on life. Iñárritu’s constantly swaying camera is what helps visually tell the story of a man abandoning his disregard of life and replacing it with an acceptance of death.
Uxbal’s devotion and love for his children, his only remaining family, rocked me to my core. I realised how important I am to my similarly small family. I imagined what it would be like to no longer be in their presence and share intimate moments with them.
“Look in my eyes. Look at my face. Remember me, please. Don’t forget me, Ana. Don’t forget me, my love, please.
There isn’t a quote in the history of film that is more permanently etched into my mind than this one. Those words are among Uxbal’s last in the film. A touching, intimate moment with his daughter. His pleading for her to remember and forgive him is one of cinema’s purest soliloquies. As he utters those words, effectively sealing his tremendous character arc, Iñárritu’s camera begins to pull… and pull… until we are disconnected from Uxbal, and his spirit disconnected from his body. His crossing over isn’t shown overtly, rather implied by Iñárritu’s sensitive, free-flowing camera.
If the story itself is, as it is frequently labelled, heavy-handed and excessively dark, then Iñárritu’s directorial style completely liberates the film from that weight. The way he handles his camera is Kurosawa-like, allowing an insight into a character’s life without implying anything other than freedom a la Rashômon.
The minute the credits rolled on my first watch of Biutiful, I was a mess. Tears were rushing down my face, my eyesight was blurred. I had discovered the meaning of life – or, at least, my own meaning. I realised how selfish I was being by ignoring my health.
When I was able to collect myself, I ejected the disc from my blu-ray player, pulled it out and stared at it for a few seconds. I just remember looking at it and saying aloud “thank you.” If anyone had walked in on me at that point, it would have been a strange thing to witness. I was thanking an inanimate object. Or so it appeared. Except I wasn’t thanking the disc. I was thanking a story, and its characters, for helping me understand the value of life.
Once I put the disc away and back into my shelf, I immediately ran over to my phone. All I remember is exhaling. Calling my GP and booking an appointment was a complete and utter blur. I still don’t remember plucking the courage to do it. I don’t remember anything I said. A few days later, I was checked. I was still petrified, but I knew I was doing right by myself and the people I love.
A couple of weeks later, I got my results: I just had a minor infection. Some antibiotics and a lot of water did the trick. I got lucky.
I still struggle to realize that I endangered my health and rolled the figurative dice on my life. Had my pain been a symptom of cancer, I may have missed an early diagnosis and shortened my lifespan drastically out of selfishness and petty fear.
Every time I look at my blu-ray copy of Biutiful, or simply think about the film, I am overcome with gratitude and undying love. Even writing this essay has been an odyssey of almost four years. I have tried to do the film, and my story, justice but I always end up scrapping the piece and crying instead.
Maybe I have always struggled with the words because after all of the internal chaos of that time period and its aftermath, the thing I need to say, the truest and most necessary statement, is a simple sentence.
So, to Biutiful and Iñárritu: Thank you for helping me realise what it means to be alive.
Featured Image: Roadside Attractions