Monday, February 21, 2011


Just as foreign visitors to the U.S. East Coast don't go touring around the disgrace to governance which is Camden, New Jersey, or the wasteland bits of Filthadelphia across the polluted Delaware river, Americans visiting Barcelona don't see any parts of that city inhabited by the characters of Inarritu's film BIUTIFUL. In fact, most Americans abroad are content to shut their eyes to poverty and oppression, just as they do in the homeland. Just as Woody Allen did when he filmed his London-based comedies, or his Barcelona one. Not a lot of laughs in squalor. Film-makers who choose to shoot abroad do so for the same reason as corporations outsource their jobs, and also of course to have a holiday.

This remake of the Kurosawa film is relentlessly sad, haunting, and frightening, and as other film critics have done, I recommend it primarily for the bravura performance of Javier Bardem, and, in fact, the superbly riveting acting of all of the cast under the direction of Inarritu, one of the "three amigos" of contemporary Mexican cinema. Most serious non-English language films are better than 90% of the movies coming from Hollywood studios, although the rubbish is lapped-up by Americans desirous of innocence (etymologically the same as ignorance) and anti-intellectual entertainment.

The film would have been even better (though more uncompromisingly severe) if it had not copped out with its "Miracle in Milan" (De Sica) coda. Bardem seems (consciously or not) to have channeled to great effect, after his illness in the film takes hold, the Dustin Hoffman walk of the Ratso Rizzo character in "Midnight Cowboy". If it were not for Bardem's box office appeal, BIUTIFUL would be more than a bit much for American audiences, who are more and more dumbed-down with rom-com, simulated violence, big-money sports, and celebrity worship as the years pass. That certainly makes it easier to control the populace and ensure that there is no significant political discourse, just personal and corporate greed, which, as long as it still trickles-down, like a golden shower, to enough of the masses, keeps the "loose confederation of millionaires and billionaires" securely in power and makes mockery of democracy.

Living as I have done for fifteen years on a south Jersey barrier island, one island away from the notoriously twee Ocean City, I was curious as to why, in one scene, Bardem conspicuously wears an Ocean City, NJ, sweatshirt. I'm not sure if there's a reason for this. I would doubt it has anything to do with Ocean City being the place where Grace Kelly's family maintained a summer home well over 50 years ago.

The people who live in the world of BIUTIFUL are as recognizable as the people who sleep under the Boardwalks here, or in homeless shelters on Absecon Island, where the monstrous casinos of Atlantic City at this island's north end provide a backdrop to a place which "caters to losers" as the late writer and my good friend, Christopher Cook Gilmore, once put it; or who huddle against the biting cold winds on iron grates under which the subway roars in the decaying city where I was born and raised, and which was America's first capital. There is no "Homage to Catalonia" in BIUTIFUL, just a compelling naturalistic exploration of what our world is becoming.