How 'Biutiful' started with a voice in a director's head

Javier Bardem as Uxbal in 'Biutiful.' He is niminated for the best male actor Oscar for the role, the first time a performance entirely in a language other than English has been so honored
Image courtesy Roadside Attractions

Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu gained world-wide recognition for the intricate intertwining plots of his films Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

He wanted to do something simpler for his next film - to tell the story of just one man. That film called "Biutiful" opens in the Twin Cities this weekend, and is in the running for two top Oscars. Inarritu says the fact its about a man dying doesn't mean it's depressing.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu says the story of "Biutiful" came to him when he was living in Barcelona a few years back. As he walked around the city he began hearing a voice in his head which called itself Uxbal.

"Little by little, he began to dictate [to] me who he was and what was his problems and how to solve them," Inarritu said during a recent phone interview. "And it took me like almost two years to put it together."

Uxbal's problems are many: he's relatively young, a single father of two living on the edges of the squalid underground economy in Barcelona's undocumented immigrant community. But one problem stands over them all: he's dying of cancer. Inarritu became focused on what it must be like to know you have just 75 days left.

"For me the journey of Uxbal it's about observing life through death," Inarritu said. "Through the perspective of death. And when you put the camera at the end off the road then the journey looks differently, that perspective changes and everything is much more important, becomes much more meaningful. And that's what I wanted, you know."

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu dyring shooting of 'Biutiful.'
Image courtesy Roadside Attractions

After his complicated films in the past Inarritu says he was looking for a way to tell a simple story, having one person look at the world. He knew through Uxbal he had it.

"In the the world that we are living it seems like a very radical style of storytelling now," he laughs.

Yet as he worked on the script Inarritu realized this simple story is really very complicated.

"When you put the camera at the end off the road then the journey looks differently, that perspective changes and everything is much more important, becomes much more meaningful."

"Life is not allowing him to die," Inarritu said. "This is not a journey of a guy thinking metaphysically about his death, or philosophically about it. I think this is an ordinary guy who has to pay the rent, who has two kids, who has to fight with every ordinary and vulgar kind of thing that life offers us every day in a very concrete way."

Inarritu says, like a tree beginning to fall in the middle of a large forest Uxbal begins pulling down other things around him.

In "Biutiful," Uxbal runs a business with his brother organizing undocumented labor for construction sites. It's dirty dangerous work. He also leaves his kids with Chinese friends who labor in sweatshops.

As his illness progresses the business begins to unwind, as does the relationship with his brother and his ex-wife. The only thing that remains strong is the bond with his children. The movie takes it's misspelled name from his son's English homework.

At the center of the movie is Javier Bardem, who has been nominated for and Oscar for best male actor. It's the first time anyone playing a completely non-English speaking part has been honored in this way. Just as Uxbal entered Inaritu's head, Bardem became Uxbal.

On set
Bardem and Inarritu discuss a scene in 'Biutiful.' The film is nominated for the Best Foreign language Oscar.
Image courtesy Roadside Attractions

"He has this gravitas, there is not a false moment," Inarritu says.

Bardem is actually one of the few professional actors in the cast. Inarritu says they shot chronologically for five months straight, and the entire film rests on Bardem's shoulders.

"But I think he did more than a performance - basically it's real," he said.

When asked how he thinks audiences in the United States will react to a film which is so far from mainstream Hollywood fare, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu says he hopes they take it as an affirmation of life. He says the important thing may be just to give it a try.

"It's like classical music," he said. "Everyone likes it, it's just that people aren't exposed to that. That's what I feel."

When asked what he'll do next, he sighs and says he has nothing planned yet. But maybe a comedy.