Simple words have great power. In choosing the title of his new film, Iñárritu borrowed this power, but with this comes a risk. Does Biutiful (2010) live up to its promise?

By the deliberate mispelling, Iñárritu takes ownership of the word, turning it from a verb to a proper noun. The mispelling also draws attention to the title, making us do a double-take (a trick also seen in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds).

Think of other movies which have drawn on this word. Life is Beautiful. A Beautiful Mind. American Beauty. The protagonists struggles to discover meaning and a sort of beauty beyond the Holocaust, the ravages of schizophrenia, and – in the case of Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham – beyond the shadows of middle-age and suburbia. Where does Javier Bardem’s character, Uxbal find beauty in his world?

[Spoiler alert] Uxbal lives in Barcelona, but it is not the glamorous city familiar to tourists and portrayed in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (in which Bardem also starred). Uxbal is a single father who lives on the fringes of Spanish society: a fixer for people-smugglers and immigrants gangs working in sweatshops or scratching a living on the streets. The famous Sagrada Familia cathedral is only glimpsed once, in the far distance from the run-down area where the characters live.

It’s not long before we learn that Uxbal has inoperable cancer. Things go downhill from here, in his ‘professional’ life and in his personal life, where his children’s mother – unstable and alcoholic – returns to bring chaos and violence into their lives.The gangs cheat and lie to him, as do the corrupt police he bribes to protect them. Every scheme seems to come undone, yet still he keeps moving, thinking of yet another way to make some money – all the while conscious that he is a dying man.

Watching Biutiful was be a depressing, despairing experience at first. it wasn’t so much the pitiful squalor of the characters’ lives which affected me, but that these conditions seemed to form an inescapable condition of being: a hell of the soul.

As Uxbal struggles on, though, it dawned on me that he didn’t share my despair.

Through the darkness closing in on him, there was always a point of light that he walked towards: his love for his two children and a focus on ensuring they would be looked after when he died. There is something innocent and hapless about the fact that all the money Uxbal has made is kept wrapped up in his sock drawer. In a final act of trust that others are as good-hearted as himself, he hands over tens of thousands of Euros to a Senegalese migrant friend and asks her to care for his children. Whether this was ultimately wise or foolish is only revealed towards the end of the film, just before a final mysterious scene of dead Uxbal reunited with his father at last, walking happily though an endless snowy landscape.

Biutiful has its flaws, yet it will be most moving film I see this year, and Bardem is almost assured of an Oscar nomination for his performance of the all-too-human Uxbal.


See an interview with Iñárritu, the director of Biutiful, here.

The old man in the market


When I moved to Melbourne over 10 years ago, a regular sight at my local market was an old man quietly sitting at a card table with piles of books in front of him. No one took any notice. The crowd bustled past him and his books on ‘liberating the human spirit’ and ‘new consciousness.’

Eccentrics hawking self-published books are a familiar sight, but one day I asked who the man was. ‘Oh, that’s Jim Cairns,’ someone said. ‘He was Deputy Prime Minister under Whitlam, you know …’

One of the irritations of being a politician must be that after a lifetime’s work, you are often defined in the public imagination by a single incident (think Malcolm Fraser and the Memphis Trousers Affair). I’ve recently been reading Paul Ormonde’s biography of Cairns, A Foolish Passionate Man, and was struck at how true this of him, and how unfair it was.

Cairns is now remembered for the so-called Morosi Affair, when his political career came to an abrupt end following a friendship with a staffer, Juni Morosi, who was not only outspoken but glamorous, confident, female and ‘of mixed race’. These were multiple crimes against the status quo of 1970s Australia. When he began to speak publicly of society as ‘not just a market, but a community’, and announcing that real social change would not happen until we all learned to love one another, there was sniggering and rolling of eyes on all sides of politics. The knives came out.

In the aftermath, he was a prime mover in establishing the Down to Earth conference-festival (soon to be known as Confest) and spent the remainder of his life promoting ‘alternative’ views which would become more and more popular among young people, when he was already in his sixties and seventies. In a sense, Cairns’ tragedy was that he was a man before his time.

His role as de facto leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, his part in bringing the White Australia policy to an end, in beginning the work of tariff-reduction while minimising the impact, and opening up relations with China … in all of this acted with a conviction and moral purpose which would shame most modern politicians.


Image: © Rennie Ellis. Jim Cairns at Confest, Phillip Island 1980.


Hitchcock’s wonderful Marnie (1964) on ABC 2 tonight reminds me of the curious place that water and drowning have in his movies. The first Mrs de Winter who goes to the bottom of the ocean in her yacht in Rebecca; Kim Novak throwing herself into the Bay in Vertigo; Tippi Hedren trying to kill herself in the pool in Marnie, and even the shower scene in Psycho.

I haven’t quite worked out what’s going on here, and I’m sure Hitchcock himself wasn’t conscious of how he used drowning women in the films. it just fitted the story. Each one is central to the story, yet all are different. They are significant, not so much in themselves, but for what they trigger, reveal, unfold, set in motion.

The drowning woman is an image used in a variety of ways by Hitchcock, but always with this intense emotional resonance which helps power the plot of each story.

One day I’ll check through his early silent movies for other examples of a woman being indirectly ‘killed’ in this way, as Marnie is – trying to drown herself after her husband Mark (Sean Connery) forces himself on her. It’s about something which seems desired and feared at the same time – our capacity to hurt and also to save from hurt – and isn’t that the essence of power over others, and our dilemma of what to do with it?

Future perfect

Visions of the future are quaint and innocent things.

As the Paleofuture website shows, these visions – whether in cartoons, academic studies or technological projections – turn out to be inescapably rooted in the culture of the time, and also strangely dream-like.

Flying cars, personal jetpacks, humanoid robots eager to please – these were less about the future, and much more about yearnings for an alternative, more compliant version of the present: a version in which our night-time dreams of being free of gravity and accessing a more-than-fleeting happiness could be made concrete.

Of course, we now live in the future every day, taking for granted astonishing technological advances and regular cataclysms, both natural and man-made – as though the Jetsons and the Book of the Apocalypse had come to pass at the same time.