González Iñárritu’s Biutiful (2010) and the Double City

By Ana María Manzanas


The white spatial imaginary idealizes ‘pure’ and homogeneous spaces, controlled environments, and predictable patterns of design and behavior. It seeks to hide social problems rather than solve them”

In order to have pure and homogeneous spaces, ‘impure’ populations have to be removed and marginalized.

George Lipsitz. How Racism Takes Place



González Iñárritu’s Biutiful portrays a common juxtaposition in the contemporary urban landscape: tourists appear alongside migrants trying to sell wares. The two sets may temporarily occupy the same spaces yet their psychological geographies are far apart. Tourists, as guests of the hospitality industry, may comfortably wander about an iconic and “picture perfect” (Bradshaw 2011) Barcelona; migrants, as nobody’s guests, furtively occupy the same spatial premises but are always wary of the police presence. Their crammed and dismal lodgings belong to a different part of town that is far from beautiful, to the sweatshops and basements where they work and sleep. Such is the spatial fracture that González Iñárritu presents in Biutiful. There is on the one hand the monumental and cosmopolitan Barcelona, as portrayed in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and a different city that can be described multiracial but also dismal, drab, gritty, full of poverty, squalor and inequality on the other.




The link between these two cities and sets of spaces is Uxbal, a street hustler who is terminally ill. His role is complex, for he is a devoted father but also a petty criminal who both protects and exploits immigrants. He takes money from Chinese sweatshop owners and Senegalese street vendors to pay off corrupt city cops. The latter turn a blind eye when African street vendors try to sell their wares, usually fake designer purses, to tourists in the city centre. González Iñárritu adds another layer to Uxbal’s position as a middleman or go-between, for he communicates with the dead. This fragile scheme comes to a sudden halt when the Chinese migrants die from gas inhalation in the crammed basement where they sleep, the result of the faulty gas heaters Uxbal buys for them. Their bodies are dumped in the Mediterranean Sea but are washed ashore, a painful reminder of those trying to cross the liquid line that separates Europe from Africa. As Uxbal goes through the last stages of his illness he is taken care of by Inge, a Senegalese woman whose husband has been deported to Senegal. Since Uxbal’s wife is bipolar and an alcoholic, she cannot take care of their children. Instead, Ige will take on the role.


Analysis: Barcelona as the Double City


If, as writes Henri Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space, “Every society produces a space, its own space,” Biutiful clearly illustrates how Barcelona creates its own spaces. Space in the film is no mere frame, nor a “form or container of a virtually neutral kind. … Space is social morphology” (Lefebvre 1991, 94). As the inscription of history, power and language, space has traditionally bifurcated itself into the space of the blessed and the accursed. The film clearly shows this separation. There are those who prosper in their blessedness (read wealth and health), and those who are accursed, with their sense of transience and their wandering aimlessly. The first belong to the “white spatial imaginary,” the second to the infected spaces the city creates for “impure’ populations.” This two-fold division of the city roughly coincides with what de Certeau conceptualizes as the grandiose and static panorama city—the visual simulacrum that attracts thousands of tourists, and the “migrational” city which slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city (1984, 93). Similarly, Manuel Delgado provides another articulation of the urban space as the city and the non-city. If the city is the stable morphology based on a stable social order, the non-city is characterized by the nomadic, by the forms, structures or intersections that cannot crystallize in the city (). This is the doubleness at the heart of Inárritu’s film.


Nobody’s guests

While tourists legally and freely move around the monumental city and are shown shopping in designer stores, the Senegalese migrants and the Chinese migrants of the movie represent a “shifting boundary,” as Bhabha would put it, that is never going to be admitted to the Heim, the domestic spaces of the visible Barcelona (1994, 164). Theirs is the city that can be described as dismal, full of labor, race, and class inequalities. Like the migrants in Calais portrayed in Lioret’s Welcome, they are within the contours of the European Union, yet they do not belong anywhere and are not accepted anywhere. They are just part of the outside within the inside. Their “differential inclusion,” to use Mezzadra and Neilson suggests a position that is associated to “varying degrees of subordination, rule, discrimination, and segmentation” (2012, 67). Although surrounded by tourists and international franchises, they can be easily recognized as not belonging. In Bauman’s terms, they are part of the “the disposable”, the surplus population that does not fit anywhere. They are just nobody’s guests.


The Disposable and the absence of a Horizon

There are very few views of the city’s iconic images such as the Sagrada Familia Cathedral or the Agbar Tower in the film. Uxbal can see their distant outline from a hospital room. Nothing is random in this carefully structured film, and Uxbal’s sick body may be a synecdoche of the split city.Frustrating the viewers’ expectations to see and identify familiar landmarks, González Iñárritu relies on interiors, crammed locales and insides of apartments, moving away from the vision of the city as a product (Fraser 2012, 22). Thus the film fully separates the spaces of the hospitality industry, and the spaces where the city administers hospitality towards its others. When street shots are shown, the sky is frequently cropped out (Fraser 2012, 22). Antonio Prete writes in his treatise on distance that the right to a horizon is the right to look beyond, to look at the limit where the sky and the earth meet. It is the right to direct your vision beyond restrictions, beyond the rectangle of the window, beyond cul-de-sacs. The right to a horizon is not part of the chart of rights. Still, when it is denied, it is the visual and concrete representation of the privation of other rights (2010, 63). González Iñárritu has chosen to cut out that line of flight in the movie. There is no horizon in the visual imagery of the film, and what predominates instead is the city’s underbelly. The viewer finds no respite, neither do the characters.


Contentious Spaces

In “Politics and Aesthetics: An Interview”, Jacques Rancière claims that “In the end, everything in politics turns on the distribution of spaces. What are these places? How do they function? Why are they there? Who can occupy them? For me, political action always acts upon the social as the litigious distribution of places and roles. It is always a matter of knowing who is qualified to say what a particular place is and what is done in it” (2003, 201). In Biutiful the African migrants try to sell their wares under the watchful eye of the police, who decides where the vendors can be located and for long. While a huge Nike logo presides an early scene in the film, the street vendors are always subject to the presence of the police and a previously accepted map of where they can sell. If the Plaza de Cataluña and the Ramblas shape the core of a touristic city, González Iñárritu situates migrants alongside tourists, thus disrupting the widely accepted distribution of spaces in the city, and what is to be done in them. In so doing, Biutiful transforms the well-known and iconic places of the city into litigious spaces.

There is a long scene set on Plaça de Catalunya that dramatizes this contested distribution of places. It starts with an aerial panorama of the Plaça, to later descend at street level, where the African vendors are shown selling their goods. The take dramatizes de Certeau’s double articulation of the city as the panorama and the migrational city, as the city of Icarus versus the city of Daedalus. As Uxbal has previously warned Ekweme, the Square is off limits for the vendors, who are also selling drugs. Unwilling to ignore this spatial transgression, the police raids the Plaça and runs off the vendors, creating chaos along las Ramblas. The raid makes very clear who can occupy public spaces, how, and for how long; it also reveals that public space is “partial to a certain definition of the public—that a more democratic notion of public is always already subject to the uneven laws of capitalist competition” (Fraser 2012, 23). Ekweme escapes to the Gothic quarter, where he is brutally beaten and taken away by the police. La Plaça de Catalunya and Las Ramblas are transformed into sites of conflict (Fraser 2012, 24) that dismantle the vision of Barcelona as as “reified and consumed city” (Fraser 2012, 22), as the commodity admired all over the world. Thus the film resignifies locations that have been traditionally associated with a cosmopolitan Barcelona and reveals how certain city actors are subject to the implementation of one particular vision of the urban space, a “particular capitalist refashioning of city-space, in which under the illusion of homogeneity—effecting the ‘absence of difference’—marginality is policed in the modern city so that space may be sold as a tourist destination or as an attractive business location” (Fraser 2012, 30). The aim is to construct the image of Barcelona as an enclave, as a homogeneous and pure space. However, the abundance of scenes depicting the circulation of money from the different sets of actors shows that migrants’ money definitely contributes to the keeping of the social (or police) order that harasses them. As one corrupt cop admits to Uxbal, he could not survive on a cop’s salary. Who is the host and who is the parasite in this subtle equilibrium? The police profits off the migrants, who have a physical and economic presence in the city. The interconnections are more intricate in Uxbal’s case, for one of the workers at the sweatshop watches his children, and he eventually asks Ige to take care of his children after his death to cancer. There is an undeniable layer of transnational actors that the city relies upon.


A Dialogue with the Mediterranean and Borders

The sounds of the sea open and close the film in a dream-like state. Visually absent for most of the film, the Mediterranean Sea does appear as the story draws to an end. When it does, it does not comfort the viewer with the vision of tranquil beaches at dawn, for the camera immediately focuses on dead bodies. The Chinese immigrants were disposed of by dumping them into the sea and seem to return naturally and rhythmically as their bodies are washed ashore. Once again, González Iñárritu frustrates the viewers’ expectations to identify specific landmarks in the city. Instead, as the movie does with Plaça de Catalunya and the Ramblas, the beach becomes another contested site at the center of lines and demarcations. Just like the city separates and differentiates between tourists as the recipients of the hospitality industry and migrants as unwanted guests, it also dramatizes the contradiction between “affirming free circulation in a world without borders and the practices of keeping borders under surveillance and defining groups of people who cannot cross the sea” (Rancière 2003, 201). The scene dismantles the varnish of the city’s cosmopolitanism and brings to the fore the tragedy of those who set out to sea in search for the European dream.


Hospitality: The home


Although Ige is tempted to take Uxbal’s money and return to Senegal to reunite with his husband, she retraces her steps and comforts a dying Uxbal. She will also take care of his two children in what seems a seamless transition, a case of private and conditional hospitality that creates a peculiar reunited family. The arrangement situates Ige as head of the household, as the motherly presence that will care for them until the mother returns from a detox treatment (if she ever does). The globalization that brought about corporate power has also brought about a layer of transnational actors, as Saskia Sassen claims. In Globalization and Its Discontents Sassen argues that the proliferation of chain stores and franchises should not make us lose sight of the intimate relationship between corporate power and transnational actors and the rising numbers of immigrant workers since the 1970s (1998, 34). Biutiful shows how immigrants may not have direct power in the city but they do have presence and emerge as significant subjects (1998, 34) as they create alternative affiliations. Thus the film resignifies iconic places and resituates marginal characters.




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