Those were the days, when in morality plays people were wearing black hats and white hats, then came Sergio Leone and put the Ugly into the center, the human nature, unstable, treacherous, weak, until black and white faded and only gray remained in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.
Biutiful, the latest Alejandro González Iñárritu movie is in the above context an anti-morality play, set to the bleakest possible world, or better underworld, of street crime, drugs, disease, illegal immigrants, sweat shops and lowering costs, but where the costs have distinctive human faces. The creatures that dwell at the bottom of the sea. A search for empathy, solidarity, kindness, love, seems futile in this world in which Inarritu searches for beauty.
And we have a perfect anti-hero Uxbal, a middle aged man, a former street kid, who did not move far away from where the circumstances have thrown him and also seemingly failing in everything he tries to do. He has problems connecting to his son, tries to keep his wife away from his children, he fails to protect his "client" street-peddler of counterfeit goods, a Chinese young turk is trying to replace him in his business of connecting cost-lowering sweatshop owners with people who have no better options in life and the police with its overt brutality (to which no-one objects) and covert insatiable greed. Ironically he earns additional money with (again seemingly earnestly) trying to help people (for a small fee of course) to pass into afterlife, but having problems accepting his own pending death from a prostate cancer. He is surrounded with a support cast of closet homosexual sweat-shop owner, bipolar wife, non-violent asshole brother and of course crews of illegal immigrants (if they still count as human, as for example in Children of men).
We have to give Uxbal credit for trying hard to do the right thing. He tries to help everyone the best way he can, he is trying to support his family, he is being loyal to his business partners and he treats them like partners, not like faceless numbers, he tries to help those for who we usually do not care about (even if for a commission), but he fails in practically everything.
The black street peddlers are being deported to their home countries, chines workers are dead because of cheap heaters Uxbal has bought to keep them warm in a cold cement basement. His children risk to become street kids (his own fate, he really does not want them to experience). His wife ends up in a hospital. But he manages to gather some money, to provide for his kids, all of which he leaves in hands of a woman, illegal immigrant, a wife of a deported street-peddler, no relation to him.
And there we find finally some hope, some grace, skewed beauty in this movie. Walking past the green shark composed of (pictures of) 500 € bills, Ige returns to take care for Uxbal's children, passing the opportunity to return to her homeland, reunite with her man, perhaps start a business with money Uxbal has left her and most probably live a better life than the one in the portrayed Barcelona barrio.
So this cough-ball of dirt of a movie, after all the wisdom, reflection seems to be dead (I cannot find any other metaphor for a dead owl) is a morality play under all its complexity after all, the only possible for today. There were times, when there was something to fight for (or to flee from, just to die alone in a foreign country shortly afterwards, as in case of Uxbal's father) and these are times of sharks composed of 500 € notes, whose bite is not apparent, but no less deadly. And here we can compare the youthful enthusiasm, hope of a better life (even elsewhere) of our fathers, with the disillusionment of today. At the end of the movie Uxbal is heading towards abyss with his young father (Smoke anyone?). So are we.