On a superficial level, there is very little in common between Salt of the Earth (1954), a bare-bones narrative of labor unrest in an arid, desolate New Mexican mining village dubbed Zinctown, USA, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vivid, saturated, and jarring portrayal of contemporary Barcelona, entitled Biutiful (2010). Iñárritu addresses a distinctive socio-economic underbelly in Spain, filtering experience through a single Mexican protagonist, Uxbal (Javier Bardem). But he suggestively exposes broader demographic and immigration changes underway across Europe.
At its core, Salt of the Earth is a decidedly local film. It employed neorealist techniques and was subjected to a variety of constraints imposed by Cold War politics. Political pressures helped to mold a particular atmosphere and imparted an unrehearsed quality to the film. According to Rosaura Revueltas, the actor who played Esperanza Quintero, “[The cast] never saw any rushes. The film was shot blindly. Scenes were never repeated. During filming, helicopters flew overhead in order to protest…” Salt exudes a spontaneity that pervades even the most didactic scenes. This natural quality reinforces Esperanza’s radical and incisive soliloquy. In it, she articulates the crux of the conflict with her husband, Ramón: Anglo employers undermine and antagonize the Mexican miners, yet Ramón is complicit in discrimination, debasing his wife by discouraging her political engagement. The dismissive nature of his responses (“You’re talking crazy!” and “Will you be still!”) betray the truth in her words.
Biutiful represents an essentially global film, in which characters from developing nations are linked to each other and to Europe in a tightly wound economic network. This is not to insinuate that Iñárritu disregards the local environment. With the utmost care, he conveys textural and chromatic details of Marambra’s (Maricel Alvarez) apartment, the dank sweatshop housing Chinese laborers, and the living quarters of the Muslim Senegalese. Still, a nascent internationalism emerges, with Barcelona functioning as a hub for émigrés, human trafficking, and other illicit activity. The resulting social universe is exceedingly complex, and the wealth of visual information contained within each frame only compounds that impression. Iñárritu’s filmic precision approaches hyperrealism. His style proves expressive and photogenic, if at times unsettling.
Interspersed throughout the film are supernatural moments, which call to mind the magical realism of Latin American literature. Those moments function as visual breaths, which alleviate the slightly claustrophobic and suffocating experience of material poverty. In one sequence, two massive swarms of birds dance in flight over city. For a moment, they exist not as birds, but as abstract entities. Uxbal fixates on this display, which is at once bizarre and extraordinary.
Calatrava Bridge, Barcelona. Creative Commons, Zio Fabio.
Stylistic distinctions between the two films reflect their unique historical contexts. Salt of the Earth was produced under tremendous political pressures. Actual workers participated in the production process, lending a greater degree of authenticity and making Salt slightly more astonishing than if it had relied purely on professional actors. In some ways, Salt of the Earth and Biutiful represent polar opposites; in terms of scale, stylization, casting, sound, and complexity of the mise-en-scene, the films could hardly be more different. Yet, both films convey a particular experience of Mexican transplants, engaging issues of male anxiety, gender equality and inequality, and the adverse consequences of free-market capitalism. They occupy separate parts of the temporal and geographic spectrum (1950s United States, and present-day Spain), yet the films address a number of related cultural questions. A full comparative analysis is beyond the scope of this entry. Instead, I will outline the construction and experience of women in the Mexican émigré culture.
Salt of the Earth may be considered groundbreaking for its apparent foray into feminist activism. It subverts, or at least challenges, an established gender order in post-War America, and does so rather obliquely. When Esperanza articulates her condition, it is without flourish or euphemism. Early in the film, she shies away from politics and tacitly accepts her domestic identity. For instance, she asserts her ambivalence about entering the union meeting with the other women. Moreover, it is Consuela (Angela Sanchez) who proposes the women’s auxiliary branch for the miners’ union. In the wake of the meeting, Ramón brusquely acknowledges, “At least you didn’t make a fool out of yourself like Consuela.”
The formation of the auxiliary, and its ultimate effectiveness in maintaining the picket line after a court injunction prohibits future miners’ strikes, reflects a morality in the filmic universe of Salt, which contends that men and women are essentially the same. Although tensions exist between husbands and their wives, a mutually beneficial partnership gradually emerges in the film. Ramón even invokes unity between “brothers and sisters” in the aftermath of the attempted eviction. Still, feminine acquisition of a labor relations discourse, and the subjection of women to physical violence (in the form of strikes and imprisonment), runs contrary to many of the entrenched gender norms espoused by the men.
In one of the most memorable dialogues in the film, Esperanza asserts Ramon’s total reliance on her involvement in the negotiations: “You can’t win this strike without me. You can’t win anything without me.” He responds with a threatening gesture, but it elicits no spasm of fear; rather, it spawns her complete renunciation of “the old way.” Esperanza’s final instructions, “Sleep where you like, but not with me,” convey the transformative potential of her political engagement in realigning power dynamics within the home.
Interestingly, Biutiful presents a far more ambivalent picture of the Mexican female. In Salt of the Earth, men occasionally adopt a feminine perspective, as when Ramón hangs the wash to dry and wonders why indoor plumbing had not been a major union demand from the beginning. But masculine and feminine perspectives in Biutiful seem nearly irreconcilable. Uxbal’s wife Marambra is presented as rather wretched and manipulative, even if these traits are beyond her control and likely symptomatic of her mental illness. Whereas Esperanza is indispensible to Ramon, Marambra seems only to sap Uxbal’s energy: her alcoholism and apparent bipolarity, her incessant need for sex, and her total economic dependence add up to a woman who resembles a child more than a spouse. Marambra also actively undermines Uxbal’s attempts to create and maintain order in the household. His exertion of control is not coercive, but rather intended to establish much-needed boundaries for his children, Ana and Mateo.
Nowhere is the fissure between male and female perspectives exemplified more clearly than in a late sequence in Uxbal’s brother’s strip club. Whether Iñáarritu intends to communicate something about Mexican, Spanish or European attitudes towards women is not entirely clear. What is evident, however, is that objectification of the female is rampant, and the audience’s limited exposure to such imagery prior to this scene merely reflects Uxbal’s relative dignity within the film’s dubious moral spectrum. Perhaps what is more shocking than the seedy costumes, inflatable decorative flesh, incessant pounding music, and seizure-inducing lights, is the exchange that occurs between Uxbal and a young woman (whom his brother boasts he has slept with). Their physical proximity only amplifies the sense that she and Uxbal are separated by a lifetime of experiences. Her youth underscores his impending death, seemingly accelerated by his drug and alcohol-induced intoxication. When she asks why he isn’t dancing, he responds, “Because I’m dying.” It is unclear why he is doing what he is doing – perhaps it is a defensive strategy in this grotesque and demeaning atmosphere. A profound sense of isolation and male anxiety settles around Uxbal at that moment. It is a loneliness that no female presence can attenuate.
 Esteve Riambau and Casimiro Torreiro,“This Film is Going to Make History,” Cineaste 19 (1992): 50.