by Jen Paton
Some travelers to Paris, mostly the Japanese, are supposed to suffer psychologically when the real City of Light does not match up to the imagined one. The disease is called Paris Syndrome: “fragile travelers can lose their bearings. When the idea they have of the country meets the reality of what they discover it can provoke a crisis.”
Perhaps it’s an ailment that doesn’t just afflict foreigners. Europeans seem to have developed a kind of Europe Syndrome, in that the ideas they have of their countries, or more precisely, their cities, fail to meet the reality of contemporary urban Europe, and they just aren’t sure how to deal with it. Hence the growing success of rightist nationalism from Sweden to Hungary, with attendant visions of forests of minarets growing across the continent. Hence, also, the scrambling of so many European leaders to declare multiculturalism failed and dead. But how can something have failed, let alone be dead when it is being lived, however precariously, every day? Can multiculturalism as a lived reality fail or die, when it simply is?
This partial sightedness stood out to me in reading many of the reviews of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, reviews which cannot help but note that Javier Bardem returns to a Barcelona that is anything but the sundrenched, nubile-American filled playground of Woody Allan’s Vicky Christina Barcelona.
There’s a sense in these reviews that Barcelona has been “transformed” by Iñárritu: “the city has been bled of colour,” is seedy, and is “far from the picture-perfect tourist destination.” But even the most guileless American study-abroad blogger can tell you that “the beach seemed more party than classy (as did much of Barcelona) with its various illegal salesmen selling everything from messages to cerveza.”
Iñárritu’s Barcelona is a real city, yes, “illegal salesmen” and all. Not a playground, but nor is it a hell: it’s simply a city where people are trying to eat, stay sane, and raise their children. It’s a city of dark, unloved interiors – old wallpaper and unwashed dishes – and damp exteriors of almost generic European streets (the green farmacia neon, the corner shop, the vague light industrial spaces which hide illegal and exploited labourers). The few scenes that take place in the world of upper middle class, “white hat” capitalism – at a shopping promenade, in a night club – are equally jarring.
Bardem’s character is the opposite of the seductive, wealthy, and superficial artist he played in Vicky, whose biggest problem was the madness of his gorgeous wife. Here he is Uxbal, a man who also has a mentally ill wife, but plenty of other things to deal with: two beloved children and a string of extra-legal business ventures, a gift of second-sight (he can speak to dead people), and, most urgently, his own terminal prostate cancer. The film follows him as he tries to sort all this out knowing he will die soon. We follow him through the complications of his family life as well as his business ventures as a broker between Chinese labourers, Senegalese street vendors, and crooked cops, with only a murky cathedral on the skyline to make the urban landscape recognizable to an outsider as Barcelona.
“I had the opportunity and the privilege to look at a reality that some Spanish and Europeans don’t want to or aren’t disposed to see,” Iñárritu told El Pais, adding that he jokingly described the film about as “la conquista”, but the conquest was not of the new world by Spain, but of Spain by the immigrant. Nowadays, evoking the image of conquest is daring: but as a Mexican, and I daresay as an American (in the continental rather than national sense) Iñárritu has a more comfortable sense of the cultural accretion comes out of conquest in the longue durée, and doesn’t allow himself to be caught up in the short term panic of “immigrant invasion,” as so many Europeans do, explicitly or implicitly. With so much of the European – and North American – press in a lather over Islam in what Orianna Fallaci imagined as “Eurabia” – it’s notable that the only religion we see practiced in the film is evangelical Christianity, and Uxbal’s own, very personal and somewhat pagan, second sight.
Uxbal himself is an immigrant – a Spaniard in Catalonia, and moreover, he is a Spaniard who fears the sea, that source of imperial power. He confesses to his daughter that the sound of it itself is scary to him, as well as the thought of how deep it is. The sea haunts the peripheries of this film: from Uxbal’s unstable wife’s name, Marambra, to a scene where dead Chinese wash up on shore in an image as horrible as real life two summers ago, though at least in the film there are no sunbathers nearby.
Some have seen Biutiful as a film obsessed with death, but Inarritu demurs, saying he had poem by Jaime Sabines, Del Mito, in mind:
Mi madre me contó que yo lloré en su vientre.
A ella le dijeron: tendrá suerte.
Alguien me habló todos los días de mi vida
al oído, despacio, lentamente.
Me dijo: ¡vive, vive, vive!
Era la muerte.
My Mother told me I cried in her womb.
They told her: he’ll be lucky.
Someone spoke to me every day of my life
In my ear, slowly, slowly.
He told me: live, live, live!
It was death.
“Put your affairs in order.” Uxbal’s only confidante, an older woman who seems to share his supernatural gift, warns him as he folds his body into a crying, guilty hunch. “Put your affairs in order. That’s all that matters.” Europe would do well to follow Uxbal’s example of working in the reality in which one finds oneself rather than flailing violently against it. Paris Syndrome is a passing ailment, after all, “a manifestation of psychopathology related to the voyage, rather than a syndrome of the traveller.” Let’s hope that is the case with Europe, that her current palpitations are as transient, that she can get her affairs in order.