Biutiful is eloquent, touching, artistic and – let’s be honest – one of the saddest movies you’ll ever see. You won’t leave the theater dancing. But you won’t be sorry you saw it.
The film opens today after an earlier academy-award qualifying run, a strategy that led to Javier Bardem’s surprise Best Actor nomination for his role as Uxbal, a poor man in Barcelona facing unimaginable problems and no happy end. He has untreatable prostate cancer, two small children and a bipolar ex-wife who can’t care for them. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s typical interwoven plots include a melting-pot of illegal immigrants and Uxbal’s ability to communicate with the recently dead, but it is the wrenching human story, brought so believably to life by Bardem, that makes the film extraordinary.
Still, in an season overflowing with Oscar-bait movies, with high drama and deep sadness, you have to ask why we should depress ourselves by watching Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart mourn their dead son in Rabbit Hole, Lesley Manville grow lonelier and sadder by the minute as the single woman in Mike Leigh’s delicate portrait of marriage, Another Year (photo below) , Ben Affleck feel like an unemployed loser in The Company Men? Some of these films offer glimmers of hope, but uplift is not the point.
Why subject ourselves to such bleakness? There’s always the dirty little secret of schadenfreude; the more tragic the characters’ lives, the less our own little annoyances seem to matter. But that only takes you so far.
We go to depressing movies because when a film is as profoundly real as Biutiful, watching becomes like traveling to a foreign country of the emotions, where everything is as strange, unsettling, exhilarating and maybe as dangerous as traveling geographically to a foreign land.
When the emotions are that rich and real, the story can be as alien to most of us as When We Leave, another exquisitely-made film opening today, about a young Turkish-German mother brutalized for defying her family. It can be as painfully familiar as the execs laid off in The Company Men, victims of corporate America. We become part of the characters’ worlds, even their souls. To stop watching would be as unthinkable as turning away from a friend in distress.
These films are not about immersing ourselves in dreariness for its own sake. If a bleak film doesn’t have that genuine emotional pull, the experience is just masochistic. But I have no reservations about recommending all these sad movies (as I have in my IndieWire reviews of When We Leave and Rabbit Hole, and Newsweek reviews of Biutiful and Company Men). They offer the glorious, often poetic opportunity to share another person’s existence. Would you pass up a chance to visit an exotic country?
And unlike the people in documentaries, who can make you feel responsible enough to go out and actually do something, these sad creatures are fiction. You can walk away guilt-free, telling yourself “It was only a movie.” Uxbal lives! (As much as he ever did.)