'Biutiful': Tragedy And Addiction In Barcelona

Filmmaker Alejandro Gonzales Inaritu — who made Babel and 21 Grams — has now made a tragedy, a story of people who are struggling in Barcelona. They're struggling with cancer, with bipolar disorder, with drug addiction and with poverty. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Gonzales Inaritu about the new film, Biutiful, which stars Javier Bardem.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

The Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who made "Babel" and "21 Grams," has now made a tragedy, a story of people who are struggling in Barcelona. They're struggling with cancer, with bipolar disorder, with drug addiction, with poverty. Many of the characters are illegal immigrants from China or Africa who are also struggling with exploitative bosses and raids by the police.

(Soundbite of sirens)

SIEGEL: The central character of this very bleak film, which is called "Biutiful," is played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem. He's dying and he's trying to provide for his children. By coincidence, Bardem also starred in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." In that film, the Spanish city is romantic, colorful, dotted with buildings by Gaudi. In Inarritu's new movie, that Barcelona is barely recognizable.

Mr. ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU (Filmmaker): It is not what people expected, but I promise you that that really exists and I didn't went very far to find that, unfortunately. You know, you just turn - if you are standing in the Ramblas looking to the mountain, you just turn your camera to the right and there it is. It's a reality that it's uncomfortable and many doesn't want to see.

SIEGEL: The Barcelona of immigrants, the Barcelona of people who are invisible to most of us.

Mr. INARRITU: Yeah. And, you know, for me, it's important because Barcelona was not a protagonist here. You know what I mean? This is not like "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." This is a film that is about many things and Barcelona is the back lot, is the perfume, is the atmosphere, is the context. But this story could have happened in any European city now.

And this huge new problem, which is this immigration, that has changed and is shaping economically, culturally, socially, every suburb of every big city in Europe. And these people are suffering immensely and they are, you know, very close to the abuse, to be exploit, and I call it the slavery of the 21st century. It's really heartbreaking.

SIEGEL: I think having seen your film "Babel" and "21 Grams" and "Amores Perros," I can say you haven't exactly been making musical comedies so far. You haven't been making light films. But this film, "Biutiful," is - to say it's dark isn't doing justice to the word dark. It's a very - a very discouraging story.

Mr. INARRITU: Let's see. If we wanted to reduce the film to a word or to an adjective, yes, I mean, people have used dark or bleak. But if you go to the Museo Prado and you see the dark painting of Goya, you know, yes. Are they dark? Of course. Or you see Francis Bacon painting or you see Munch, "The Shout." Yes. I mean, as disturbing is that. Yes - or "Requiem" in music. Yes, it's about that.

But obviously, maybe I didn't achieve it, but I was trying to get in the point was this is a tragedy, which is a genre that has been forgotten in the entertainment business. It has been forgotten. It's a great, valuable way to express stories of human beings. And the tragedy has some rules and those rules is about somebody who will be hit by destiny in every angle.

And while he is falling down, free-fall, how this character, with dignity, will find a way to redeem himself, to find light, to find a verticality in his existence and put everything together. That's what tragedy's about. And this film is that. It's an exercise. From "Medea" to "King Lear," to "Macbeth," it's just that this guy is not a king. This guy is an ordinary guy, an ordinary life in a very complex world. And that's, for me, what this - this story, at the end, is a love story between the father and their kids and an absence of fatherhood that never exists and the guy is trying to solve that during the whole film. That's, for me, what's the essence for me.

SIEGEL: You mentioned art. Art includes "The Scream" by Edvard Munch, the great painting. When you've made a film and you come to, you know, to American distributors and say, I have this great film. It is to movies what Munch's "Scream" is. It's not a horror movie. It's a serious tragedy. Are people enthusiastic or do they say, this is too depressing for us?

Mr. INARRITU: I think the people will love this film. It's just the people doesn't know about existence of this film because obviously the industry is just about selling entertain-destruction. You know what I mean, like, predesigned corporate products to take money from the pockets of 10 to 15-year-old kids. There's nothing more than that, you know.

And it's just making it more difficult for audiences that they have a lot of stiffness in their emotional muscles, that they haven't been moved long time ago, or even intellectual ones. And they just want to sit. And they have been used, especially the young audiences, just to sit and be entertained. And they want clowns. And I think that if I would have spent three years doing a film like this, or four years, I should bring the people more than entertainment.

SIEGEL: I was thinking though, after watching "Biutiful," which is, as you say, is set among or it greatly involves immigrants outside Barcelona, I was thinking of Stephen Frears' movie "Dirty Pretty Things," which was set among immigrants from Africa and elsewhere, in London, living similarly, but was essentially framed in a conventional way, as a thriller, I suppose. There's blood in it. It's not an easy, not a thoroughly happy film. But it's a very different approach that was a form, I think, of entertainment. I don't think of "Biutiful" as a form of entertainment.

Mr. INARRITU: I think it's very interesting because the storyline just gets you, grabs you and doesn't let you go. And I have to say that talking about bleakness or darkness, I found much more darkness and bleakness in a 30-minute TV newscast show than in this film. The news that we heard, the way the world is now, or there is much more in existential thoughts and more darkness, at least for me the way I see things, in these films that people are killed and you don't feel nothing. And even when they kill people, 30 of them at least, 50 in the name of entertainment in a very cool way, very well shot, you know, you laugh and you don't care.

And that, for me, is just something that, you know, here there is one guy. Yes, the guy is dying, but you care for it. And the way I have seen people really relate to this character and the way people is affected by the film all around the world I have been travelling, you cannot get better than that because the people really shake in a good way and they are not indifferent. And that's what art and that's what art should do, which is provoke, create catharsis.

This is not a decorative piece. No, this is not a piece that you just pass and say, okay, I - is fine and then 20 minutes you just forgot it and you eat your popcorn. This is a film that will leave you something. And I think that if the people will get $10 and will give me two hours of their lives, I better do something better than just make them laugh a little bit. That's the way I respect the audience, you know.

SIEGEL: Well, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. INARRITU: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: His new movie is called "Biutiful." This is NPR News.

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