I am headed home from New York City, where I accompanied my wife as she attended a reunion of sorts. We dined in Burger Heaven at 62nd and Lex and then went our separate ways, she to her gathering, I to the movies. Since reading a feature about it a month ago, I’ve been eager to see “Biutiful,” the new film starring Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”). And so I did.
Afterward, I walked hellbent for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to say a prayer for my family, as their father. En route to St. Pat’s, I walked down the gauntlet of gaudiness that is Fifth Avenue above 50th Street: Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Prada, Trump Tower, Henri Bendel, Gucci, Cartier, Versace . . . The full experience—film, glitz, cathedral—already forms a sort of tritypch in my memory. “Biutiful” is a film about a father (Bardem) who learns early on that he is dying of prostate cancer, and it is set in the anti-glitz slums of Barcelona, where for one brief moment we see Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia hovering over all.
This is not a gratuitous image. “Biutiful” is a film about redemption. That it contains scenes of nudity and homosexuality and a nightclub episode that suggests Hiernoymus Bosch on crack cocaine unfortunately disqualifies it for consideration by most in the Catholic media. I say, see it anyway. Only leave your children at home.
Uxbal (Bardem) is a father of two beautiful children, Ana (about 11) and Mateo (about 7). Their mother (Marical Álvarez) is a manic-depressive addicted to God knows what, whom we first see dancing nude on the back of Uxbal’s brother. No surprise, the couple is separated and Uxbal has custody. Not that Uxbal is a saint in the making. He earns his living as a bag man for illegal aliens from Senegal and China, carrying their payoffs to his friend in the police and skimming off his share. But we see another side of him too: He has some ability to commune with the dead, and he uses this ability to comfort the grieved at funerals, while skimming off his share.
If he weren’t so damn handsome, or his children so heart-tugging, we wouldn’t have much sympathy for Uxbal when he learns that his cancer has metastasized to his liver and bones, that he has maybe two months of quality living ahead, if he wants to undergo the nauseating indignity of chemotherapy. But we do care. Because “Biutiful” is about the death that comes for us all—bagman, addict, foreigner—and the gaze that overcomes it.
There are two remarkable characters in “Biutiful,” both angels of redemption, each offering a remarkable gaze. Bea (Ana Wagener) is a sort of confessor/medium whom Uxbal goes to see to lay his burden down. Her advice to him (enough spoilers, already!) is worth the price of admission. A Senegalese mother played by Diaryatou Daff offers the final tender mercies of this amazing film about children and fathers, and the fathers of their fathers.
Afterward, I walked along Fifth Avenue toward St. Patrick’s, formulating my prayers as I went: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, sinner and father that I am. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, pray for us. St. Pio of Pietrelcina, pray for us. . . . Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.