Celebrating Alejandro González Iñárritu’s birthday through the investigation of the parent-child relationship motif in his six feature films.
“What happened to my family?” Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) asks an ER doctor after getting word that her family has been in a car accident. Her daughters are dead. “Where are they? Where are they?” She demands. This exchange in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2003 film 21 Grams is the distillment of his body of work. In all six of his feature length films, he deals with a parent-child relationship in flux. Actually, the better question posed by his films, though not explicitly, is what is my family?
In his features, González Iñárritu dissects the parent-child dynamic and unveils hidden structures within. Why is this subject important to him? How far does he take this theme in his films? The answer is: the motif is more than a dalliance that González Iñárritu entertains or a narrative mannequin on which to hang an involved plot. His interest in investigating what this relationship could be is embedded in his DNA has been fostered through his life experiences, and is made manifest through his films.
The following is by no means a complete examination of all of González Iñárritu’s cinematic parent-child relationships. This article is meant to show just how versatile and pervasive this motif is in his films.
Obviously, the parent-child motif is most easily noted in González Iñárritu’s features simply by the presence of such relationships in each of his films. Features like Amores Perros and Birdman document the relationship between a mother and daughter and a father and daughter, respectively. However, the relationships depicted in these two films occur at opposite ends of the relationship’s life. In Amores Perros, Susana makes decisions that will affect her infant daughter’s future; most importantly, the decision of whether to stay with her husband (Ramiro) or to run away with his brother (Octavio), which would have dramatic effects on the young girl’s life. When Susana ultimately decides to stay with her husband despite the fact that he will continue abusing her, her decision is validated as Ramiro dies soon after. She remains a virtuous wife, but she is also delivered from a fate of abuse. This validation brings up a tangential theme in González Iñárritu’s films, which is rewarding the character that chooses to keep the status quo—a theme that will come up again in this article.
The director did not choose Mexico City as the location for Amores Perros flippantly. He is a son of the city. As a man who was born and raised in the city, the violence he depicts in the film has been his reality for his whole life. In impoverished sectors of the city, young children grow up on the streets—in effect, the city has an equal if not greater role in raising these children than their actual parents. During scouting for the film, he and his crew were held at gunpoint by a local gang (kids who have been raised by the city), but the incident was not surprising. In Mexico City violence is not an if, it is a when. The final when happened when robbers stole a small amount of his money and assaulted his parents in their home. The González Iñárritu family left their mother country for the United States soon after these attacks. This real life event is channeled into the narrative of Biutiful where Uxbal’s father flees the violence of Franco’s Spain when he is a young man, ultimately dying abroad.
In a converse relationship to Susana and her baby in Amores Perros, Riggan and Sam’s relationship in Birdman takes the opposite perspective. Since Sam is an adult and has a more mature relationship with her father, Riggan makes the decision to hire Sam as his assistant in a desperate attempt to build a relationship with her. This is a reactive decision for the sake of the relationship, unlike Susana’s proactive decision to stay with her husband. Riggan has been an absentee father in the past, while Susana makes the decision to stay with Ramiro in order for her daughter to know her father growing up. While Ramiro dies before his daughter grows up, Susana will be able to tell her daughter about Ramiro, highlighting the good traits he possessed and leaving out the bad, thus creating a good father for her daughter.
The two plots end similarly. Sam becomes closer to her father, creating a Twitter account for him—an act of reconciliation between the two. Riggan begins to participate in social media (a practice with which he was previously at odds) and his relationship with his daughter becomes less strained. Though their relationship is not completely free of its past, they are able to move forward because they have made concessions to each other. Because of Riggan’s move to social media, he regains popularity. This positive reinforcement is similar to Susana’s positive reinforcement when Ramiro is killed during a robbery. However, an extra layer is added to both stories because both decisions come at a price. Riggan gains popularity through social media because he shot his nose off onstage in a failed attempt to take his own life—thus diminishing his ability to smell the flowers in his hospital room (a metaphor and foreshadowing that he may not be able to enjoy his newfound fame). Similarly, Susana stays with her husband even though she knows he will abuse her again. In both cases, the films’ endings challenge the perceived goodness and simplicity of keeping to the status quo.
With The Revenant González Iñárritu explores the role of memory and experience in the relationship of father and son. When Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) loses his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), he must go through a journey of remembrance that ultimately leads to revenge. González Iñárritu describes the film as a journey of memory. “The word ‘remembering’ comes from the members – you lose a member of your family, you lose a member of your body, your hair, your teeth. He’s stitching his members back.” The film plays with the idea that the stitches don’t have to follow the expected pattern—relationships between father and son do not all (physically and spiritually) look the same. In life, Glass and Hawk’s relationship was maligned by the trappers they were hired to guide because Hawk is half Native American. Their father-son relationship is seen as less-than because Hawk does not look much like Glass. However, their relationship is built on shared culture and experience, rather than how much of a resemblance they share. After Hawk’s death, Glass has a spiritual relationship with his son through memory. Glass stitches his relationship with his son back together, using his memory.
Biutiful, González Iñárritu’s first film after completing his Death Trilogy (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel), gives us a wholly different image of a parent-child dynamic. Uxbal (Javier Bardem) lives in a world in between life and death. His is a transitory state between life and death wherein he has live relationships with his children, being a traditional provider, but he also maintains a relationship with his deceased father, speaking with him in an ethereal winter forest (although the relationship is spiritual, the film depicts their interactions as physical). Though his father left Spain before Uxbal was born, the two still have a spiritual relationship, and his father still provides an example of what fatherhood is through these supernatural occurrences.
Moving from the literal relationships between parent and child to a more metaphorical space, Biutiful also explores how these relationships are expressed in diasporic communities. One of the film’s secondary plots focuses on Chinese immigrant workers. Though Spain is not the most common country for Chinese expatriates to immigrate to, historically speaking, the Chinese diaspora is one of the strongest diasporic cultures in the world. This means that Chinese Immigrants will find at least some semblance of home in a Chinese community in most major cities worldwide. The biggest reason to join a diasporic community is that your country of origin cannot provide for your needs. In the era of nationalism, wherein one’s country represents a metaphorical father, these Chinese immigrants are orphans. Uxbal helps in finding them work, and while this relationship is more exploitative than nurturing, he does act in the role of the provider or parent.
In another comment on international relations, the relationships in Babel are analogous to colonial-era ideology between parent and child. Because the film takes place across the globe, González Iñárritu draws our attention to the dilemma of sovereignty across national borders—read parental (or traditionally colonial) control over children (colonized countries). As a Mexican director, he sees the United States through the eyes of an outsider, one that has seen the display of US hegemony without the rose-colored glasses of an American. In the film, he challenges American exceptionalism when a bullet hits Susan (a patronizing American tourist) while she is riding a tour bus. The tour bus represents the false sovereignty of imperial powers. The hubris of these tourists (taking their safety for granted) is derived from neo-imperialist prejudices where the imperialists subjugated the colonized population (in this case, the Moroccans). The tourists are American, or English, or French, so they believe they possess some sort of lofty immunity from the issues of the Moroccan nationals. When that boundary is broken, it is revealed that this racist parent-child relationship is, in fact, imagined.
The film concludes the American’s story with the impending reunion of Susan, her husband, and her two children. With this conclusion, the audience is given closure and a happy ending. However, in the wake of this family’s mission to come together again, many lives have been changed. Amelia, the American children’s Mexican nanny, is deported, and the Moroccan family is irrevocably fragmented. But the audience still breathes a sigh of relief. Why? Because the status quo has been regained—just like in Amores Perros.
In light of this subtle representation of American exceptionalism, the idea of colonial patriarchy in Babel comes into sharp focus. Historically, colonial powers saw the people of colonized countries as children needing to be educated, as a child would, in the ways of the foreign power. So in Babel, it is no coincidence that the two storylines that end hopefully depict families whose countries of origin are historically colonial powers (The United States and Japan). Conversely, the two stories that end in sadness are colonized countries (Morocco and Mexico).
21 Grams may have the most complex parent-child relationship of all González Iñárritu’s films. In the film, Paul (Sean Penn) receives the heart of Michael, Cristina’s husband. Metaphorically, Paul is born again due to his new heart. Michael gave him life, so in some way, Michael has become his father. In another sense, Paul has become Michael because they both have utilized the same organ in order to sustain their lives. When Paul becomes romantically involved with Cristina, he metaphorically links himself to his father’s (Michael’s) wife.
This Oedipal relationship is born of González Iñárritu’s fascination with what makes up a paternal or maternal relationship with a child—investigating the spiritual, corporeal, and metaphorical facets of the relationship. This fascination with the paternal/maternal-child relationship, along with González Iñárritu’s penchant for manipulating time allows for a study in father-son, mother-son, and father-mother relationships between two people, while still holding on to what looks on the surface to be a socially acceptable relationship. In a broader sense, regardless of his films’ structure, genre, or language, at the core of each of González Iñárritu’s films is the relationship between parent and child.
Related Topics: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu