Saturday, 26 March 2011


…life throws an unbearable amount of sadness on you, without any warning.

Sometimes, cinema does too.

Completely unexpectedly, I saw two movies today: ‘Biutiful’, the last work of Alejandro González Iñárritu, and (finally, almost a year after failing to catch it at TIFF!) Florin Serban's award-winning 'Eu cand vreau sa fluier, fluier'. And while I need to keep my thoughts and words on them for elsewhere (I promise, I will share the news here when the time comes, if it does...), I simply cannot help noting that I probably couldn’t have picked two sadder movies playing in cinemas today than I did. Not to make any confusion – they are two very different films. Yet both are about suffering in a way, and what unifies them (among other things) is that a certain source of their suffering – the main one, in case of Serban’s Silviu, and the ‘final’one, death, in case of ‘Biutiful’s Uxbal (wonderfully embodied by the ever-versatile Javier Bardem, who seems to never disappoint, and only gets better with time...) – is simply outside of their hands, outside of their power to meddle with.

While both films have their ‘issues’, they are nevertheless worthy of your time. Serban’s film, while not one to be labelled predictable, suffers from some incoherence, both in terms of characters and plot ‘odds’, and it owes a slight lack of charm to its over-insistence on being ‘Romanian’: in a while I haven’t seen such usage of certain long takes just for the sake of it. Yet it was Iñárritu’s film that eventually left me colder, less drawn by its story. Iñárritu is a director who cares for his characters; yet he cares much more for the grand-ness of his topics and the ‘importance’ of what he narrates. This leads to his films often feeling a bit overly cold, distanced, calculated – and thus hard to relate to, even if the stories he tells are often so overloaded with human suffering it seems almost impossible not to sympathize with the characters. And ‘Biutiful’ is no exception: a movie so filled with sadness it is difficult to watch, yet so loaded with stories coming together in predictable ways that it left me even a tiny bit bored at moments. And in the end, it was 'Eu cand vreau sa fluier, fluier' that felt more devastating in its depiction of suffering: not because Serban directs it with more grace or makes it more convincing (actually, it might be the other way around), but because of the ‘type’ of suffering he imposes on his main character.

In ‘Biutiful’, the suffering imposed by one human being upon another (or in this case, others) is more strongly related to side characters, while the main suffering comes from, to frame it somewhat rudely but in the end accurately, ‘natural causes’. Uxbal suffers ‘for’ the others (his kids), due to his life circumstances and terminal illness, and less ‘due to’ others (tho in the case of his wife, there is a combination of the two, as he is obviously torn by own stance on her, yet can’t help it as she poses a threat to what he loves the most). And if Iñárritu hints to us the humane characteristics of his side character, so that we would feel strongly for them as we normally would for the lead(s), he makes sure to still leave them one-dimensional enough for us not to get too carried away (this refers primarily to Lilly, who is given decent space, but is reduced to a dimension the Western world likes to sympathise with the most when it comes to immigrants: a single, suffering, struggling mother, as if being an illegal immigrant is not in itself enough). Serban, on the other hand, ties all his main character’s suffering to people: he is a victim of his mother’s carelessness, and once he is old enough to understand this, and ‘wise’ enough to try to prevent it from happening again to one person he really loves (his little brother), his good intentions find so little understanding in the deaf impersonations of the system that the only thing it can do proudly in response to his mission is to stomp on him with a heavy special police forces boot. And while in any other case such framing of Silviu’s position might seem as avoiding responsibility for own actions, he is amnestied by his young age, and a lack of responsibility of others for him (as a child/young teenager).

To make things even sadder, while Iñárritu recognizes the inherent weakness to human beings, and compensates for it slightly to its miserable hero by assigning him a friend to listen to his heartfelt stories and provide for some physical gentleness that requires nothing in return, thus saving him from walking through at least some parts of his personal hell completely alone, Serban brutally deprives Silviu of all real accomplices. He gets sympathetic glances and eventually cheers from his fellow inmates, but is left alone by most – even the sympathetic prison director quickly loses interest when the ‘normal functioning’ of the system he is running seems to be brought to question. This is not to say that Silviu’s method is good in the end – but when observed as a consequence of his previous complete inability to find any allies, it becomes, if nothing else, less of an instant reason for his condemnation. What is impressive is that Serban never decides to change his course when this is concerned; where in a Hollywood movie a passionate kiss would close the cafe scene between Silviu and the girl, in Serban’s interpretation the kiss is only one-sided, as even sympathy is still masked by fear on the other side. Emotionally, he simply has no real support in anyone, which underlines his suffering even more. He is tormented AND abandoned by people (and people as parts of systems - but let us leave that for some other time, no matter how crucially important it is), not 'the world', 'nature', 'destiny' or any other concept vague enough not to be pointed out so easily - which is probably the saddest of available combinations. And had Serban been brave enough to explore the fragility of his character, the inner breakage which is depicted much too quickly and too vaguely, Silviu could have been a character truly amazing. This way, he seems like a semi-finished drawing of an interesting idea. But on that – in some other places, hopefully. For now, this post has seen enough, if not too much sadness framed in words already.