In Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu’s Biutiful, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a melancholic self-help medium, discovers he has cancer and none of his ghostly chat partners have answers for him.
At the beginning of the film, a family pays Uxbal to visit the funeral of their son and help their son on his way, to answer their questions regarding his death. The scene begins with Uxbal sitting in the room next to the body. At first, we only see the dead body and then a shot of Uxbal’s face from what appears later to be the POV of the son’s “ghost.” Throughout the film, we’re never introduced first to the ghosts – they appear, on a second thought, just before the scene cuts.
It’s not so much a surprising reveal as it is a reflection, and most of the time, we only see these ghosts through the reflection of mirrors or water.
And at one point in the film, while Uxbal visits an older woman, there’s a split-second appearance of a lost husband in the reflection of a mirror. But when Uxbal goes to receive counsel from his ghost-counselor, Uxbal is shown in the reflection, a foreshadowing of his death. His ghost counselor tells Uxbal to put all of his affairs in order and tell his son & daughter of his terminal disease but he’s stubbornly attached to pushing through it: “I’m not going to die.”
Marambra, Uxbal’s ex-wife, battles all kinds of addictions and is therefore unfit to take care of his children. There seems to be an intended parallel between her mental disorder and Uxbal’s various afflictions. It’s reductive and fails to develop Marambra’s as more than a prop on Uxbal’s stage (the movie relies on visual parallels and more to a fault e.g. dead Chinese workers washed ashore and then the beached dead whale on TV screens).
There’s a homosexual romance introduced between Hai, a Chinese businessman, and his younger Chinese partner, Liwei. The significance of their relationship is hard to reconcile to the movie except that reflection for Hai becomes a signal of guilt. The camera pans from right-to-left across a mirror that reflects the body of Liwei on their bed, possibly murdered by Hai or even a suicide, it doesn’t matter.
But then the camera pans left-to-right across the grotesque body itself and finally settling on a window from which we see Hai walking away. When accompanied by Uxbal, the camera inherits his “dead-seeing” gift allowing the audience to witness the ghosts, the echo of the person who has died.
But in this scene, we’re meant to compare the “double take,” the reflection between Uxbal and Hai. With Uxbal, death leads to a spiritual existence, away from the squalor captured in the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto. With Hai, death represents so much loss, Hai becomes a ghost of sorts, staring in the reflection of his car mirror after leaving Liwei.
But after some badly-chosen heaters lead to the death of all the Chinese workers (men, women, children all), Uxbal can no longer face the ghosts anymore. The extreme pain and suffering of the dead and his fear of what world comes after combine in Uxbal’s guilt, keeping him stubbornly attached to living.
As the film continues along its linear course, Uxbal’s guilt, his stubborn attachment to his life, is represented as Uxbal himself becomes more and more grotesque, in reflection and deed. Instead of “moving on,” he is, in a way, becoming the dead body of Liwei.
This review was originally published in 2011.