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BIUTIFUL

On Uxbal and Marambra and Maricel
Bardem always wanted to work with Alejandro González Iñárritu and vice versa – and the two finally come together with Biutiful. González Iñárritu had Bardem in mind for Uxbal even as the character first emerged in his imagination. When he showed Bardem the script, the actor's reaction was instantaneous.

"It had a deep impact on me, for sure,” says Bardem. "I had a very instinctive, emotional response to it. When you have this kind of material, you know you are going to jump into an ocean of doubts and fears, and also expectations and joys. In the end, with this story, it is the journey that counts, but you want to do it right, to do justice to it. You don't want to rush to get to a particular place but give yourself completely over to it. It is a journey towards love, towards the light, towards the positive things inside something that has become black, dark and difficult.”

Uxbal embodies a man of roiling contradictions – a devoted father, broken lover, hardened street criminal, spiritual sensitive – in a moment of sudden, intensifying personal danger and vulnerability, as well as transformation. "These contradictions were already there on the page,” he notes. "All of these aspects of Uxbal were beautifully rendered and described in the screenplay. What I had to do was find the meeting point of all of these things without betraying any of them. In the end, Uxbal is a normal person who has to face a very tough experience, who has to face reality, and who has to overcome all this to leave a legacy for his family, a legacy which he could not have left in the beginning. He wants to leave something positive for his kids, something that gives them hope and something they can carry in their future lives.”

He talked at length with González Iñárritu about the character. "We both thought of him as going through three different journeys,” Bardem recalls. "One is an internal journey entirely within himself; one is an external journey in the streets as he tries to find a way for his family to survive; and the third is a journey to that thing above us – spirituality, mortality, the things you cannot see or explain but that Uxbal has a consciousness and knowledge of. What is interesting is that each of these journeys interferes in a way with the other. His body, spirit and mind need something from him, but his life on the streets and the urgent needs of his family and children require exactly the opposite. This is his constant conflict.”

The inner, outer and transcendent aspects of Uxbal's journey all wrap themselves around his relationship with his ex-wife, the volatile and troubled Marambra, played by Argentine actress Maricel Alvarez, a newcomer to the screen. Bardem read with a number of actresses before he read with Alvarez. "Any one of them could have done the job, but when Maricel came at the last moment, she had something in her that truly belongs to the character,” he comments. "She had that mixture of gravity with the lightness of someone whose feet don't really touch the ground, the perfect combination of those two ways of being. When she came into the room, there was no doubt that she had to be the one.”

He continues: "Working with her was a wonderful experience as together we explored these two unstructured minds of Uxbal and Marambra. We did it with compassion, love and hard work.”

Uxbal also has a conflicted relationship with his brother Tito, portrayed by Eduard Fernández, who has worked with Bardem before. "It is impossible for Eduard to say anything that is not true,” comments Bardem. "He is brutally honest. He does a lot of preparation and I think his work in the film speaks for itself.”

Bardem also was moved by his experience with non-professional actress Diaryatou Daff, who plays Igé, the Senegalese immigrant who becomes Uxbal's last-ditch savior. "It was a very brave role for her because she shares so many common circumstances in her life,” he says. "It was quite emotional to watch her. She was nervous in the beginning but then, at a certain point, she really let go, which was beautiful to witness.”

Having previously starred in Woody Allen's Barcelona-set comedic romance, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Bardem had a chance in Biutiful to enter a completely different side of the city, far from the stylish architecture and cafes that seduced two Americans in that film. "Like all cities, Barcelona has its light and its shadow, and one is sustained by the other and vice versa,” he says. "I had heard about it, but I was not really familiar with all of these illegal factories in the immigrant areas until we began the film. Then, it seemed they were always in the news, with police raids every week. In the places we shot, real life is more complex than fiction.”

As Biutiful progresses, every aspect of Uxbal goes through a metamorphosis – his body, the things on his mind, the things in his heart, the hopes he holds onto – and that was the crux for Bardem. The physical dissolution was the easy part, he says. "We shot chronologically, so, physically, you start with a plan – you know when to stop eating, when to start exercising twice as much. We were working really long days and you are tired so that comes easily into your body. That is not the difficult thing. The difficult thing is all the emotions you are left with at the end of day. Any character is a leap of faith, but there are many different kinds. In the case of this film, the emotional demands of that leap were very high, but it was very rewarding artistically.”

In the end, collaborating with González Iñárritu was all that Bardem had anticipated. "It was an honor and a privilege to work with Alejandro because I am someone who has devoured his films,” he says. "We worked really closely and it was an adventure – Alejandro said it was like climbing a mountain, where you keep moving towards the peak. It was very difficult, but also enriching, because it was very personal for him and for me.”

Maricel Alverez came to the project in a whirlwind when González Iñárritu sought her out for an audition. Though she is one of Argentina's most celebrated performing artists, she had never before taken on a film role. "For, me it was a wonderful surprise to be invited to audition for Alejandro González Iñárritu and then suddenly, within a week I was flying to Spain, where, wow, I found myself auditioning with Javier Bardem,” she recalls. "It was the greatest honor to be chosen to work with such a remarkable director and actor – to me it was like a gift from life to get to know them. And that began a journey that was very special to me in both artistic and personal terms. It was an opportunity to grow not only as an actress but as a person.”

Only after the auditions did she finally get to read the script. "I found it powerful, painful and also absolutely delicious because Marambra is a huge challenge for an actress,” Alvarez says. "It's a dream role because it requires going into the most extreme emotional states – from the highs of total euphoria to the depths of darkness. I was not afraid of it; I was looking forward to being able to explode and explore. We are used to living our lives inside this frame of normality and everything outside it frightens us. But leaving that frame behind can also feel very freeing, as well as dangerous.”

Still, there was little time to prepare. "When you don't have much time to prepare, you have to trust your director, you have to be like clay in his hands,” she says, "and so I decided to trust Alejandro completely. I made the decision to be as open as possible, as present as possible, to keep my eyes and my ears open, and to trust my most basic instincts

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