Both Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico/Spain, 2010) and Route Irish (Ken Loach, UK/France/Italy/Belgium/Spain, 2010) hinge upon moments of great unbelievability. Or at least, moments that don’t, to me, quite add up.
In Biutiful, the film reaches its apex when Barcelona-based fixer Uxbal (Javier Bardem) buys some cheapo gas heaters for the illegal Chinese workforce of a local associate. It turns out that the heaters are dodgy, and as a result the immigrants stuffed into the basement all suffocate and die.
Without wishing too sound inconsiderate, this sequence pushes belief. Having idiotically left on overnight a gas hob connected to the mains (as opposed to a gas limited to the contents of a single tank), and in a space significantly smaller than the basement in Biutiful, and having lived to tell the tale, I find it hard to believe that this would happen. Not least because the basement in Biutiful has windows and a door, and the place does not seem as though it would be devoid of drafts.
That is to say, whether for reasons of ill judgement or otherwise, I found/find myself incapable of believing this twist in the film’s plot. And yet, as is perhaps to be understood, the accidental deaths of the Chinese workforce, indirectly Uxbal’s own fault, are supposed to be a defining moment in the film.
Hereafter, we are given a ride into Uxbal’s feelings of guilt. And herein is the fundamental problem, or, for me, weakness of Iñárritu’s film. For, the death of the Chinese labour force seems to be an excuse for Uxbal to exercise his sense of redemption and to exorcise his demons as he heads towards his own death. This is arguably made most clear by the conceit that Uxbal can see the dead – and that he can guide them through limbo to Heaven. That is, by seeing the dead, Uxbal arguably needs dead people to live. Rather than the film considering the dead Chinese workers as people, then, Biutiful treats them as an excuse for the journey of one man towards his own death. The film, finally, is Uxbal’s fantasy, then, perhaps even his own Heaven in that he is already ‘dead’ – and he needs the dead bodies of others to find his own way to Heaven.
Similarly, Route Irish sees the plot hinge upon a voicemail message left on a landline that, given the prevalence of mobile phones in the film, really should have been left on a mobile. Harim (Talib Rasool), a singer and translator, leaves a message for Fergus (Mark Womack) on his landline. In it, he explains/translates the voicemails and text messages left on another mobile phone belonging to a now deceased Iraqi boy. This mobile phone was sent to Fergus from his also deceased best friend Frankie (comedian John Bishop), and it contains evidence, in the form of a video, that could potentially lead to the conviction of a private security contractor, Nelson (Trevor Williams), who killed the Iraqi boy and whom Fergus also suspects of killing Bishop to save himself from investigation.
The coincidence is that the voicemail is discovered by Nelson as he goes through Fergus’ stuff in a bid to stop the story going any further.
As such, it is not that the voicemail on the landline is beyond the realms of possibility, but it is overtly functioning in the film as a plot driver, and as such sees the intrusion of artifice – much like the deaths of the Chinese workers in Biutiful – in a film that, even more than Biutiful, tries to ground itself in realism.
That the film then leads to Fergus enacting a prolonged revenge for Frankie’s death – killing Nelson, his two bosses Walker (Jeff Bell) and Haynes (Jack Fortune), and their secretary (whose name I cannot find) – suggests that Route Irish is similarly set up as Fergus’ own revenge fantasy.
Unlike Biutiful, Route Irish does see Harim explain that he should have released on to the internet the video on the phone of the assassination of the phone’s owner, his friend, and a taxi driver carrying a family in his ride. In this sense, more than Biutiful, Route Irish does try to emphasise the loss of life that its key incident entails.
However, both films seem to use the death of innocents as a reason to justify a narrative centered upon Western characters to put right wrongs that they have done. That is, the films both to a certain extent demean loss of life for the sake of Westerners’ redemption for their own wrongs.
To be fair to Route Irish, this is not the film’s only ‘purpose’ as I see it. It does also take swipes at the cowboy status of independent security contractors in Iraq, in that they are a law unto themselves, while also bringing to the fore the complexity of their job, in that they are under fire from local militants who do often look like civilians, and who do also use devices such as mobile phones to set off bombs. That is, in Iraq – and especially on Route Irish, the road that leads from Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone – one can easily lose one’s own life if one does not act in an overly cautious, but perhaps too aggressively a cautious, fashion. In other words, Route Irish does point out the lucrative and exploitative nature of independent security contract work in places like Iraq, while at the same time grounding what work those contractors do in real-life circumstances of kill or be killed – with ‘collateral damage’ a reality of this.
Furthermore, the film is also a critique of Fergus, a former soldier who saw a get-rich-quick opportunity in joining an independent security contractor firm, in that he cannot easily adjust back to normal life, is haunted by his own demons, and who cannot seemingly escape from the cycle of violence that going to Iraq commences. He is not ‘right’ in enacting his revenge, either, for he also kills the secretary, who is more or less marked as ‘collateral damage’ in the film beyond the ‘bad guys’ Haynes and Walker.
As it is, then, there are no easy answers offered by Route Irish. Even though Fergus talks about the poor behaviour of Americans in Iraq, the video track in the film sees him in flashbacks beating up Iraqi families, suggesting that he is at best being economical with the truth in his spoken account of events there. Fergus, then, is not beyond criticism.
However, the fact remains that both Biutiful and Route Irish take on heavy topics – contemporary migration and the war in Iraq respectively – and offer a predominantly ‘Eurocentric’ take on such matters. As such, the films are open to critique, for by being fantasies of redemption for their Western protagonists, they do not necessarily get to grips with the effects of the protagonists’ actions, and particularly those of others around them. Migration and Iraq, then, remain relatively unexplored in these films, which prefer instead to confer a central place to the paranoia and instability of their central characters.
This does not make the films ‘bad’ – and offering such a judgment is not necessarily the point of this blog. But it does perhaps point to the difficulty that filmmakers can have in offering up a truly balanced portrayal of contemporary events and concerns.