A dying street hustler with two young children, a bi-polar ex-wife and a dicey career in the black market of Barcelona, Alejandro González Iñárritu's harrowing humanist drama, “Biutiful,” follows the final days of Uxbal, as he struggles to prepare all the parts of his life to go on without him. Oh yes, and to complicate things, the man coming to terms with his own mortality has a special gift/curse; he sees dead people. At times touching, at others shocking and bleak, this film certainly produces affect, but it is biutiful indeed, and due in no small part to the performance of lead actor Javier Bardem. We recently had a chance to speak to the Oscar winner about the film’s critics, Hollywood's rallying around the film, the painful exercise of living the character Uxbal, his latest project with Terrence Malick and more.
We start by addressing the haters. While “Biutiful” received much acclaim coming out of Cannes (including the best actor prize for Bardem), reviews were mixed and there are many who said the film is too bleak and too depressing. But as Bardem tells it that's a reductive viewpoint to a movie full of soul and humanity. “That is way too simple to say," he said. "This movie is about much more than what they’re referring to, this movie is about human spirit at its best.”
“[Uxbal] has to go through a journey," he continued. "He has to struggle and evolve in himself as a human being, and see the best and the worst of himself -- and in him, we see ourselves. If you are not ready to see that, then well you’re not and that’s okay, but... [when I experience a film] I want to see something that explains the complexity of ourselves on screen.” And while Bardem recognizes this often harsh reflection is not what all theater-goers are looking for -- “There are as many tastes as there are people in the world. Welcome to the show, choose which one you want to pick,” he says -- he believes there is an audience for “Biutiful,” as shown in the success of writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s previous works.
And it seems he’s right. As momentum builds, there are many in the Hollywood community passionately throwing their support behind “Biutiful,” some even hosting their own screenings, such as Sean Penn , Werner Herzog and the list of A-listers campaigning on behalf of the film seem to be growing. But Bardem finds the attention from such Hollywood heavy hitters humbling, “They’ve reached so many heights, so to find that these people are supporting you is...” and a smile fills in the adjective.
Another adjective is relentless, and Bardem and Iñárritu worked closely, and tirelessly, to bring Uxbal and his journey to the screen. “From the very first moment, [Iñárritu] tells me the story and I told him what I felt when I read it and we were on the same page... and from there, work work work work...” But when asked if he hesitated over experiencing anything in the script, his response was a chuckle. “I hesitated over everything, there was not one thing that I found that I wanted to experience, but I did know that it was going to be very rewarding on every level professionally.”
“I knew and I know that it’s an amazing script and an amazing character," Bardem said animatedly "And an amazing skeleton that my character has, it’s very solid and I knew that I had that thing within me, I mean, in my hands, like having a speeding train and you are on the control, but you know it’s going fast and it’s going to get to the end. And the second thing which is more important, I mean personally, you know that going through that journey, you’re going back to yourself more aware of certain things... to see the world through different eyes.”
Despite the emotional toll -- as well as the physical, he dropped weight during filming to truly embody a dying man – clearly Bardem has no regrets about taking on the project. He values Uxbal’s “forgiveness, compassion, those things that the character has to bring up from the very bottom of himself, to understand the world he’s in, to make it a little better of a world for his kids. It’s the more I see in the value of this movie and the value of Uxbal, the character.... I believe in people that learn things, since we have to learn so many fucking things. I don’t believe in characters that don’t have to learn anything, because that’s not realistic.” And “Biutiful” is not short of lessons for its characters. With every twist and turn, Uxbal is confronted with a hard education as he faces the often tragic consequences of his choices.
And the kids he refers to? New-comers Hana Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella, who play Uxbal’s children, and provide some of the most charming moments of the film, but also the most heartbreaking. As Uxbal nears the end, he is confronted about his condition by his daughter, and Bardem admits, in working with such a young actor, this particularly moving moment was mixed with heartbreak both in reality and in fiction.
“[The movie] was shot chronologically which helped a big deal, really had to be that way. It was already very complicated, and we did not want to complicate it anymore by doing it randomly. So when you do that, you are making the journey with everybody, including the kids, so for [Hana] she was on one of the last scenes... she knew that she was saying goodbye to me in a way, but she was also saying goodbye to me, Javier, and she was very affected by it because she had a good time... and she was a beautiful little human being that felt things while doing the movie and she put all of that into that scene and when I saw that -- that killed me.”
He shakes his head and laughs a little, “I didn’t have to do anything more than react to what she brought.” To react to seeing so much heartbreak, and then imagine that it’s coming from your daughter, was enough to put Bardem squarely in the shoes of one of Uxbal’s, and the film’s, final moments.
But after good-byes were said and “Biutiful” wrapped, Bardem wasted little time in jumping into another role. He has already completed work on his latest project, playing a priest in Terrence’s Malick’s upcoming film (rumored to be titled "The Burial"), but the actor kept his cards close to the vest. “It’s top secret, no it’s not top secret, but he doesn’t want us to talk about what we have done. And second of all,” he laughed, "I don’t know [how the story will turn out], so I can't, even if I would like to, I couldn't." But Bardem enjoyed working with the iconic, if not somewhat unconventional filmmaker, "It was a great experience... he is a great, funny man, he has a great sense of humor, and he has a great sense of humanity.”
Bardem was particularly in awe of the director’s process, even if he doesn’t entirely know what will end up on screen as the finished product. “His eye is spectacular, what he sees, where he points with his looks. He sees things that I saw, but I didn’t pay attention to, and then you pay attention, 'Wow'. How in the world did I not stop to see that? That’s Terrence Malick.”
So how did this new project compare to “Biutiful”? “It’s a different work, because, first of all, the material of Malick wasn’t as strong [or dark] as 'Biutiful,' and second of all, I didn’t know what we were going to do," he said bluntly. "Honestly, I have notes, I have some scenes, but what he does is to go out there and hunt, hunt something that is out there that we don’t see... and you as an actor accompany him, with a gun (laughs) for the big buffalo, and I guess the actor’s gun is his character, to be able to be ready when [Malick]’s ready to do what he does, which is put you in this unique combination between reality and fiction."
"It took me a few days to get used to the style, because I was there for a month, to realize, but then I give up, I surrender, okay, this is the way, this is fine and then I enjoy it, enjoy it to the place where I can never do it any other way again.”
So what will Bardem tackle next? It’s not that Tony Scott/Mickey Rourke project, "Potsdamer Platz," that’s been in the rumor mill for a while. Again, we asked. “Mmm... that’s not real. With Tony, I have had the chance to meet him, quite a few times, I would love to work with him, but he told me about this a long time ago, so I don’t know.” Possibly in the future? “Maybe, I’d love to work with him, he tells stories like not many people out there, he’s an amazing storyteller.” Guess we’ll have to see.
“Biutiful” can be seen in New York and Los Angeles starting December 29th, with a wider release January 28th. And in case you missed it, here’s the international trailer.