Biutiful, a Powerful Early Iñárritu Film



Biutiful (2010)

Directed by Alejandro Iñárritu

Universal Pictures, 147 minutes, R (nudity, drug use, language)

In Spanish, Chinese, and Wolof with English subtitles



If you’d like to see Javier Bardem as you seldom have, revisit the 2010 film Biutiful. It was directed by the now-famous Alejandro Iñárritu. It didn’t do well at the box office, though Bardem garnered the first-ever Best Actor nomination for a performance entirely in Spanish.


Bardem’s star power aside, Biutiful faltered because its surfaces were anything but beautiful. It is set in the squalid side of Barcelona and follows the travails of Uxbal (Bardem). Capsule reviews call Uxbal a criminal, which is technically true, but he’s mainly crushed by circumstance and bad luck. He is the caregiver for two children as he is separated from his bipolar wife Maramba (Marciel Álvarez), who is also an alcoholic, prostitute, and pathological liar. To retain his shabby apartment and keep his kids barely fed, Uxbal works numerous schemes and hustles. He does some drug deliveries, recruits cheap labor for the semi-legal construction firm of his brother Tito, organizes unlicensed street sales in tourist areas staffed by illegal Senegalese immigrants, and secures work for equally illegal Chinese workers. He pays bribes in order to operate, but if he falls behind, protection is lifted. Nothing ever seems to go right for him.


Uxbal’s children are often tended by Ige (Diaryatou Daff) when he is on the street. When he’s late with a payment, the police round up as many Senegalese as they can catch, including Ige’s husband, who is slated for deportation. Uxbal tries to assuage his guilt by allowing Ige and her baby to stay in his apartment, but he is wracked by remorse for failing to take care of those collaborating in his schemes. An episode with Chinese workers goes even more tragically awry, and his sorrow further saps his sense of self-worth. The volcanic and unstable Marambra hovers about with a passel of promises she cannot keep, which touches off potential trauma for the kids. To top it off, Uxbal has terminal prostate cancer. How can he extend his life to make sure the children are taken care of? He's so desperate that he is persuaded by his friend Bea to try alternative healing methods that fall into the category of nostrums.   


In other words, Biutiful is (mostly) an ironic title. Bardem is bedraggled, not a sexy hunk; Barcelona is a social underbelly, not a Mediterranean jewel; and the storyline is downbeat drama, not  fairy tale redemption. Yet there is a reason why Bardem garnered an Oscar nomination and won several acting prizes, including a BAFTA trophy.* He plays Uxbal as a man deeply haunted by his mistakes. The film’s namesake beauty is actually Uxbal’s inner desire and character. Yes he lives on the wrong side of the law, but each time we see him fall we understand that he is sucked into a greater pool of societal corruption. In essence, it defines his world to such a degree that Uxbal’s better angels desert him one by one.


Alejandro Iñárritu won a Best Director Oscar in 2014 for the quirky Birdman, a film I really liked. In many ways, though, its offbeat comedic touches were something of a departure. Much of his work has been like Biutiful, psychological slices of the darker side of the human condition. Think of films such as Amore perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and The Revenant. The first three made up his “Trilogy of Death,” and the last, which also won a directorial Oscar, was a fairly brutal 19th century retelling of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) set in the American West. If you know that film, you might recall that the ending features a revenant (ghost). Iñárritu paved the way for this in Biutiful. Pay attention to its prelude and final shots, which feature Uxbal’s father, an anti-Franco refugee.


Biutiful will leave you shaken, but there’s no escaping its raw power. What could be more tragic than a film about a man who would be good, but can’t be.


Rob Weir


*British Academy Film and Television Awards 


Jamie MacGillivray Thrilling (but overly long)




Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegades’ Journey (2022)

By John Sayles

Melville House, 696 pages.



If you have seen a John Sayles film, you know that he's a riveting storyteller. He's not as strong as a novelist, but he certainly brings raconteur sensibilities to the page. His

latest literary protagonist is Scottish. Jamie MacGillivray is a sprawling novel that begins in 1754, during Scotland’s disastrous Battle of Culloden.


The buildup to Culloden is complicated. In brief, England had become a Protestant nation under King VIII. In 1603, King James Stuart VI of Scotland became King James I of England and merged the two countries. Alas, future Stuart monarchs were inept, one was executed, and the openly Catholic James II was deposed in 1688. Many Catholic Highland Scots found a champion in “Bonnie Prince” Charles Stuart. His return from France in 1745 rallied them, but the dreams of a Stuart restoration died at Culloden where his forces were routed by English and pro-English Scottish troops led by the Duke of Cumberland.


Many history books move on at that point, but for Jamie MacGillivray, the combatants that survived, and those who got in the way, the page turned to new tragedies. English subjugation of Scotland was brutal. Untold numbers of Scots were thrown into filthy prisons to await “trials,” though guilt was often predetermined and the only question was: execution or deportation? Even that was sometimes settled by lottery.


Jamie was educated in the law in France, spoke several languages, and didn't actually bear arms but he was an unrepentant patriot, which was enough to warrant hanging. I won't say how he avoided it, but he is exiled. That was also the fate of Jenny Ferguson, a lovely lass seized after Culloden for the crime of being poor and suspicious. She was clamped in chains and thrown into a creaky ship whose voyage was marked by sickness and deprivation. Before Sayles’ long novel concludes, readers will visit numerous overseas colonies. Sayles has long been a champion of the underdog, thus Jamie and Jenny are strong personalities. Both, however, undergo adapt-or-perish challenges, which isn’t the same thing as triumphing.


The story of North American colonies is just as complicated as deciphering the Battle of Culloden. Scotland's “Auld Alliance” with France was played out in North America among the French, the English, exiles like Jamie, Indians, German immigrants, and African slaves. The novel bounces from Scotland and the Caribbean to Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the contested Ohio Valley, and Lower Canada (now Quebec). Jamie’s deepening anti-English zealotry will eventually carry him to Quebec City’s Plains of Abraham. There, in 1759, General Wolfe’s troops subdued those of General Montcalm, thereby placing French Canada fell under English control. (It was an episode in what got labeled the French and Indian War.)


Believe me when I say this is a mere skeletal outline of Jamie MacGillivray. In many ways Jenny’s tale is even more remarkable, a series of unexpected rises and setbacks depending on the fate of her paramours of the moment. “Moment” is the right word at a time in which fortune and life were contingent upon forces beyond the control of those caught up in them.


There was much to like about Jamie MacGillivray. Sayles did his homework and makes history come alive in small details that seldom appear elsewhere. If his were a nonfiction book, we’d call it history from the bottom up. As a novel, though, Sayles populates it with all manner of colorful characters. The Scots run the gamut from pious to ribald, and from from plebeian poets to savage warriors. Even the warriors pale in comparison to Lenape leader Shingas the Terrible, a real person.


This is not the literary equivalent of an action movie. Sayles’ characters often speak in dialect and slip into and out of English, Gaelic, French, and native languages. Sayles  gives enough clues to get the gist of the dialog, but he seldom translates. I don't think he's showing off, but I do believe he got so immersed that he often demands too much from readers. Overall, Jamie MacGillivray could have benefitted from a stern developmental editor to impose clarity and concision.


That said, Jamie McGillivrary is worth wading through. Who wants a just-the-facts past? Without its detail and “story,” history is just a list. Like Jamie, I'd rather howl than yawn.


Rob Weir


Note: I bought this book when Sayles did a reading in South Hadley. Ask your local library to order it.



Bret Easton Ellis Needs to Move On



The Shards (2023)

By Bret Easton Ellis

Alfred A. Knopf, 594 pages.



Once upon a time, Bret Easton Ellis was a zeitgeist writer and the hottest thing going. That was then; this is now. The problem with zeitgeist writers is that they seem self-indulgent when the zeitgeist changes and they don't.


The Shards is another semi-autobiographical work with Ellis at the center of things that sort of happened. It takes us back to 1981 when Ellis was a senior at Buckley, a private prep school for bright, privileged kids capable of doing stupid things. It also revolves around a serial killer that’s a mash up of Los Angeles monsters such as the Hillside Strangler (1979), William Bonin, the Freeway Killer (1980), and possibly West Side rapist/murderer Brandon Thalmer (1981-83) and/or the Manson Family.


The sanguinary aspects of the novel notwithstanding, The Shards is instantly unlikable because of a cast defined by obscene materialism and cluelessness. Kids at Buckley drive to school in their BMWs, Mercedes, Jaguars, and Porches. They think nothing of dressing in Gucci and Armand, lunching at eateries frequented by celebrities, and living in homes with butlers and cooks. Although all are underage, they drink at posh bars and hone their decadence by smoking clove cigarettes, popping Quaaludes, snorting cocaine, or tripping on LSD. Their pool parties are orgiastic affairs that cost more than a public school's monthly budget and feature hook-ups, vomiting (that the help will clean up) and Pablo Escobar quantities of coke. As for parents, many are separated, divorced, or out of the country, and the ones who are present are as bad as their offspring. Buckley is a real place, by the way, and I doubt it is flattered by a portrait of students as feral elites in training.


Bret is in a relationship with Debbie Schaeffer, though he's secretly having sex with Matt Kellner and other young men, and will eventually also fall prey to Debbie's hotshot Hollywood bigwig father Terry. Hey, it's a small price to pay for the possibility of a script. Bret’s friend Thom Wright is the main squeeze of the drop-dead gorgeous Susan Reynolds. Senior year takes place against a backdrop of disappearances and murders that involve bizarre preludes and mutilation of animals and humans. Sounds charming, doesn't it? Buckley life is further disrupted by a late transfer, Robert Mallory, who is hunky, though Bret finds him disturbing and untruthful. Bret is pretty sure he saw him with one of the women who was murdered, though Robert denies it.


Matt's murder sends Bret into paranoia territory. A beige van is seen in the area and rumor holds that it's associated with The Trawler, who may or may not be in tight with the cult-like Riders of the Afterlife. Bret comes to suspect that Robert might be or know The Trawler, and he knows that Robert is a liar. His Buckley clique simply don't believe him and defends Robert, especially when they learn something of his life before coming to Los Angeles. Susan even seems to be falling for him, which launches Thom into a jealous rage. That, by the way, might be the only actual teen-like reaction in the book.


All of this sets up a violent showdown of sorts. That “sort” would be of the histrionic, clichéd, and improbable variety. We read to find the solution to the mystery, but Ellis disappoints. Who is The Trawler? Robert? Bret? The Riders of the Afterlife? An unknown? Is Bret a hero, a pariah, or a monster? Is there any point to a mystery that doesn't tell us? I'm a fan of ambiguity, but if I read 594 pages I want more than Ellis offers.


The Shards is really about how Ellis embraced being gay. This is 2024, so it's not as if justification is necessary. The novel is quite graphic in describing both hetero and homosexual trysts, and even more so in detailing acts of violence. One is left with the sense that Ellis has written a hybrid pornographic/horror novel. Mostly, though, it seems that Ellis wants us to look at him. Sorry dude, your ship has sailed. Find other subjects. His insistence of putting himself front and center reminds me of how Woody Allen did the same in movies long after his neurotic sex-driven self was past its expiration date. The last thing we need is a recycled gay Woody Allen.


Rob Weir