In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, the role of the city of Barcelona is of primary importance in the film, second only perhaps to the protagonist Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem. Arguably, the character and plot cannot be extracted from this specific urban space. Barcelona, one of the most visited European cities, suffers from the very same picturesque image it propagates. While many films (and certainly a number of other artistic mediums) portray Catalonia’s capital from the point of view of the tourists who come to see its architectural glory, famous landmarks and swarming beaches, Biutiful, both technically and thematically, insists on the portrayal of the Barcelona of the marginalized.
The filming techniques throughout the film underline this marginalized side of the city as experienced by its immigrant population. Barcelona is rarely portrayed as a panoramic whole, and in the few shots that are positioned from an elevated view allowing this panorama, the city is shown at nighttime or under cloud cover, obscuring views of the Mediterranean and draping the architecture in a drab and depressing ambience. Additionally, the panoramic shots concentrate more often on buildings under construction than on fully finished architectural triumphs. Our vision of the skyline is consistently cluttered with cranes and never allows us liberating views of the expansive space that we would expect from a Mediterranean cityscape. The few picturesque images of the city are captured at the beginning of a shot that pans to a reality which disrupts our initial reaction to the image. The view of the Sagrada Familia and the Torre Agbar (under a clouded sky) are slowly relegated to the view out of the hospital window as Uxbar receives his cancer treatment. When we finally are able to see the horizon of the Mediterranean, a similar pan is used to reveal the corpses of the Chinese workers as they float ashore in the foreground of the infamous Barceloneta and its gleaming architecture. Thus the celebrated cityscape is used as a backdrop to harsh human realities that are more often hidden behind its gleaming façade.
Although it uses a different filmic strategy, the effect of the police chase through the Ramblas can be seen as a similar effort to disrupt the idealized image of the city held by a privileged, largely tourist population. The areal view of the Plaça de Catalunya is quickly shattered into fragmented pieces when the police begin to chase the illegal street vendors around the boundaries of the plaça. The shots are interrupted by frequent cuts between perspectives from inside the moving police cars, shots from the plaça following the chase circulating around it, and moving shots with handheld cameras following the persecuted men. These frequent moving, disrupted and disrupting shots make their way into Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s infamous street which has turned into one of its greatest tourist attractions. Yet again, the initial view of the majestic, tree-lined pedestrian fairway is cut apart into running shots, obscured views, and frequent cuts as the camera follows characters down narrow off-streets in their effort to escape.
In addition to these disrupted panoramas, the majority of the shots are filmed in closed, dark, cramped spaces that better represent Barcelona as known to the film’s protagonists than the propagated postcard images of its open tourist spaces. The basement that houses the Chinese immigrants, the low-ceilinged, seemingly temporary housing of the African street vendors and their families, and even the more spacious but decaying apartment of the protagonist and his family are the most frequent settings of the movie. The frequent use of these external contexts construct boundaries between the “outside” world of the rich tourist city and the inside, or perhaps “underside”, that, while frequently contained in these tight spaces, occasionally spills out. The shots and filming techniques used to construct the visual narrative of Biutiful can thus be seen as an effort to problematize a dominant view of Barcelona and to fully represent the city’s marginalized spaces and inhabitants.