The Mexican director and Spanish star team up to show us the underbelly of Barcelona, finding undeniable moments of beauty along the way.
On paper, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, Biutiful, is a tough sell: it’s grim from the outset, and things don’t really improve over the course of its 148 brutal minutes. However, the ride is more than satisfying. The haunting performance of Spanish actor Javier Bardem—whose startling physical transformation in the film was filmed chronologically over five months—mesmerizes. A shady street criminal living on the never-before-filmed underbelly of Barcelona, Bardem’s Uxbal receives the news that he is dying of cancer, setting into motion his desperate attempt to make sure his children will be cared for after he is gone. (Their mother is a bipolar-but-loving mess, played by the wonderful performance artist Maricel Álvarez.)
Through Uxbal’s “business” dealings, we get to see the heartbreakingly precarious existence of Europe’s immigrants (legal and otherwise), as they work in illegal factories and out on the streets. The recognizable features of Barcelona—Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s mosaics, Gehry’s fish, etc.—barely register; this could be any city in any country in the developed world, full of all nationalities trudging through life together in a depressed melting pot, as they slowly realize the [Any-Western-Country] Dream is only a mirage.
As we’ve come to expect from González Iñárritu (Babel, Amores Perros, 21 Grams), this unfiltered look at the world we live in—flaws and all—also reveals moments of pure, unadulterated beauty, even if they are not the conventionally glossy tropes we are used to in cinema. Uxbal’s relationships—with his wife, with his children, with friends—are complex, and real, and relatable: he tucks his kids in at night, the Chinese worker at the factory brings her son when she babysits at Uxbal’s house, etc. Beauty is all around us, even in places you least expect it.
At a recent roundtable in NYC, we talked with both González Iñárritu and Bardem. Their passion is clear: these men believe that art is a lens through which we learn about our world. We just have to open our eyes.
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Q: We haven’t seen you in a while.
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Four years ago! I’m older. [laughs]
Q: What happened in those four years? What led to such a gap—writing?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: [With Biutiful] I took a little more time to edit the film—almost 1 year and 2 months... privileged time that I could spend tweaking and finding the right visual grammar and architecture of the film. But normally, it’s a 3-year period that I have—it’s a pregnancy of a big monster. I open my legs, and in Cannes, there were 2000 people seeing and judging my little kid. [laughs] Blood and mucus…
Q: Can you talk about your collaborative writing process?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: This time I had two collaborators, Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo, which I found to be beautiful companions... The script is the first period of a film’s journey. I find myself incredibly happy when I am collaborating with somebody—I am not a lonely man, so when you are not hit by the production problems, just to sit down with a coffee, a cigarette, a drink, just [gestures a whirlwind of ideas], I love that. In this case, it was fantastic.
Q: In this film you are exploring one city as opposed to multiple locations. What was it about Barcelona that you felt you needed to explore?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Javier is Spanish, and I wrote the film with Javier in mind… It was [also] a way to return to my original language, and [in] Barcelona… I found incredibly beautiful the contradiction of this amazing beauty [sic] city contrasts with this different reality that hundreds of thousands of people are living in other conditions—and that’s the world that we are living in. This is the polarized economy and system that has been polarizing society.
Q: Can you talk about the challenges of shooting in those poor neighborhoods?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: It was very easy. We were very welcome, helped, and supported by the government. We never had any challenge—I can’t complain. It was fascinating; they were very happy that we were having a look at them, that we took them into consideration—those neighborhoods [where] never a camera has been set. Nobody cares about them—they are not interesting, or they are not “beauti[ful]” enough; they are not chic. So for them it was a great surprise, and they were very happy.
Barcelona is not the protagonist in this film. This is not a film called “Uxbal and Marambra in Barcelona.” This is a film that was shot in Barcelona—you can recognize Barcelona, but it is not a film about it. [What happens in the film] can happen in every single suburb of Europe, and it is a reality of immigration, which is the slavery of the 21st century, that is happening all over the world. It’s not about Barcelona.
Barcelona is very self-conscious of [itself]—like a beautiful model: [every] time she arrives and is the most beautiful and gets all the attention. But I was not interested in that beauty—I was just trying to see the other side of the human side of that city. The other side, which is just as important and beautiful as the western canon aesthetics of Gaudi and all that, things that have been overexposed, I think. I didn’t want to make a big statement, like, “THIS IS BARCELONA!” But there are some things that show you that it is Barcelona.
Q: How did you come up with the title of Biutiful?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: I recognize the titles of my films always at the end. I liked Biutiful because I thought that “biutiful” written—or as it is pronounced—in Spanish, it gleams, or it’s a gesture of inviting people to understand that not all beauty is necessarily beautiful in the obvious way—that there’s a much more profound way to find beauty, not in the surface, but on a deeper level.
Q: What is it about loss that fascinates you?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: I think that life itself is an immense accumulation of losses: we lose our childhood, we lose our virginity, we lose our parents, we lose our hair, we lose our life… But at the same time, we are getting a lot of things, simultaneously—that’s the deal. That’s what this journey is about, in a way. This guy is losing all these things, but at the same time—at least what I tried to achieve—Uxbal is getting a lot of wisdom, a surrender to the flow, and [he finds] meaning [in] his own life, what really is important, and many more profound things. And losing control of [his] destiny... In the interior choices that he makes, he found love and compassion and forgiveness. I think that’s kind of how life works.
Q: Does cancer have some personal relevance to you?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: My father got sick three years ago—it’s always a fear I have. And at the same time I found that Uxbal is fighting against cancer of society, in a way, which is this greed and this kind of system we are in. And he’s fighting in a way this cancer of himself—physically or metaphorically, cancer is a good way of [viewing] corruption, in a way.
Q: How did you direct Javier through losing weight through the course of the film? He got so thin.
Alejandro González Iñárritu: I just cut his diet—just locked him in his trailer, with one spoon of sugar a day, that’s it. [laughs]
Q: You brought a lot of extreme emotion out without a lot of dialogue. Was this one of your goals?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Yeah. It’s funny, because for me the scripts are a limited technical guide. Differently from a musical [piece], you cannot write their tones, volume, silences, time, space, light, shadows—all those things that are really huge, and that’s what the film is made of.
Less is more, so if I know that a scene can be said or expressed by [fewer] words, the better. And sometimes, once the machine is moving, and the film has already started, and you chronologically begin to feel the speed of the train, it’s very easy to know: “I don’t need this line. I don’t need this.” So you take a lot away.
And then, the real writing of the film—which is the third dimension, really when a film becomes a film—[is when] you arrive with the industrial pieces in the editing room. In the editing is when you really redefine the whole thing, and you understand that half of the words and half of the things are completely unnecessary.
Q: When you are making a film, are you thinking about the next film as well?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: I can’t. Honestly, I am a very bad lover: I’m a one-woman man. [smiles] That’s why I am not very good business as a director. I’m not very industrious, not as prolific as I would like to be. I just need to be concentrated.
[On] this film—maybe 80% or 90% [of the editing decisions were] made in the first three or four months, but maybe it took me six months to recognize a couple of things that for me made a big difference. And maybe if you see it, you’d be like, “What? I didn’t even notice,” but for me, [they] are huge improvements. So that’s why I’m a little bit perfectionist.
Q: How do you know when it’s done, then?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: You never know, honestly. [Although] this time, I have to say, I didn’t want to spend one single minute after, because I knew that I would be destroyed. And even when I can now recognize that there were things I should not have done, or whatever, there’s something that I learned: fat is sometimes in the sushi, you know, when you have toro sushi, sometimes fat is good. Sometimes the mistakes make it more human—a piece of art that is perfect is not perfect, is not human.
Q: Do you think there are recurring themes in your films that you keep coming back to? Alejandro González Iñárritu: I think fatherhood is just an obsession. I think all the films have been dealing with fathers, parents… and family. They are very family-oriented. I haven’t played CIA agents, or anything like that, very extraordinary people. These are just very ordinary people.. in a very complex world. That’s the thing that I am interested in.
Q: Why do you think that is?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Because I feel more related to Uxbal, as an unemployed in Barcelona, than to a CIA agent that I have never met in my life. All TV and all cinema are full of CIA agents, and I have never met one in my fucking life! [smiles] That’s super inhuman for me; I don’t know if they exist or not.
Q: Do you know what your next film is?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: No. I don’t know. I don’t want to know.
Q: Unless you meet a CIA agent…
Q: Can you talk about how deeply this role affected you?
Javier Bardem: It was a long shoot [five months]. I think on a movie set you have to be always in tension… To be in that state for so long with such heavy material is exhausting… you see yourself disappearing more and more from what you know you are, and becoming more the person that you created.
That's not to say that I was suffering what [Uxbal] suffered; I'm not him. But there is no room for anything else other than being him. And because you're portraying somebody in a movie who goes through so many personal journeys—emotional, heavy ones—there's no way that you can escape, to be honest… But that's what we do. That's our job.
Some characters are easier. Eat Pray Love: you go there and you have fun and you do the tone of the movie. [But] some others really leave some marks on your skin. and this is one. It's for sure the hardest that I've done.
Q: Were there parts of the city that you went into that enhanced the character for you?
Javier Bardem: Yeah. I live in Madrid, and Barcelona is like Madrid, London, Paris, New York… I had awareness of how the world is in those cities: about immigration and all these illegal factories that are treating people like modern slaves, but that's intellectual—you see it from a distance; you read about it.
In this case you are obliged to live with it, and so I spent a good month in those places with those people, talking to them and, what's more important, listening to them. Then the experience becomes personal, an emotional experience rather than an intellectual experience. That's the difference between having comprehension about an issue and really being affected by that issue. There are a lot of things going on in the backyard of any big town, and Barcelona is no different from that.
Q: Afterwards, did you want to get more involved with these people and perhaps help them in their fight?
Javier Bardem: Yeah, well, that's not that easy. I mean how do you help people that are really in the middle of… no, in the bottom of existence? Because we don't allow them to have, sometimes, even the right to express themselves.
So… for example, it's about putting this movie out there and making people realize that this is something that we have to pay attention to… the world that we create. I think our very comfortable way of life is constructed or based upon the misery of a lot of people. Just the awareness of it means a lot to them.
For example, people in Barcelona, in Spain, in the world will see that behind those numbers that show up in the paper are people, with needs. It's important for them to see that Uxbal, a Spanish person, goes through the same problem of necessity as a person from Senegal. So in the end they are both the same—it's not about color or race or origin. It's about people.
Q: Alejandro Inarritu wrote this material for you. Did he tell you that?
Javier Bardem: There is a lot of pressure when they tell you that they wrote this with you in mind. But he's wise and he said, “You can do it and somebody else can do it also. I would like you to do it.” I read it, and I'm a huge fan of his work, and some of the greatest actors of all time have worked with him... So as an actor I was really interested in the process of how this man brings out some of the best performances of some of the best actors.
[Now] I know why. It’s working really hard and putting you against the wall, in a good way. He doesn't stop. The material and what he proposes to you is a life journey; it's not a performance. It's like, “Do you want to jump in with me or not? You decide.” I decided I would, among many other things because of the things that I was talking to you about—that this is worth it. This for me is worth making [so that] people [can] see.
Q: Can you talk about shooting chronologically and the length of the shoot?
Javier Bardem: Alejandro told me in the very beginning that it was going to be chronological, and I thank him for that because it would be a mess otherwise. There's an arc very well described that has to happen, and it sustains little details. There's something big—the disease—going on, and the effect that it has on the mind, the body, the soul, but also little details of behavior that have to do with the chronological order of being affected by [the disease]. It's a great luxury for any actor, but I couldn't imagine doing this any other way. I don't know if it would've been impossible, but it would've been extremely difficult for everybody.
Q: It seems like an exhausting thing, five months—
Javier Bardem: Yeah, it is. It's the longest movie I've done so far.
Q: How do you get out of that role after being with it for so long?
Javier Bardem: You don't. They say, “Okay. Wrap it up,” and you say, “Okay. What do I do with this now?” You have to go there and let it go out [over] time. There are certain roles, like Before Night Falls or The Sea Inside, based on great real human beings… they sacrificed their lives in order to say something to somebody, to all of us, actually, and [at the end] you have to do a process of letting go. In a way you've been calling them towards you, like, in spirit, and they show up. Sometimes you feel like, “What would [the character] think?”
In this case it was different. It was like we created this out of nothing, out of nowhere, and it's difficult to detach from something that you have created because it has a lot of you in there.
Q: How did you physically transform throughout this movie? You lost a lot of weight.
Javier Bardem: It was a lot of diet, a lot of exercise, but also a lot of shooting that really makes you feel like losing weight.