Beatriz, an alternative therapist specializing in all kinds of healing, winds up spending the night at her client's mansion for a dinner party. She is a Mexican immigrant and environmentalist, surrounded for the night by a group of cutthroat white business people. The night is to celebrate a controversial business deal years in the making, but Beatriz will not go through the night silent.
Beatriz at Dinner is a quiet film from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White. I could imagine it working very well as a stageplay, which for me is a compliment. Film is a visual medium and it's rare to come across a screenplay with dialogue and narrative structure so sound it could be lifted and placed (with minor alterations to minimize set changes) right on a stage, where imagination has to fill in the gaps. The dialogue feels quite natural even when White is serving friction and Arteta is setting up Beatriz for a hard spike into the beliefs of the other dinner guests.
Beatriz is played by Salma Hayek, who takes some of the denser dialogue of the film and makes it believable. She has the lion's share of the screenplay to herself and largely speaks in monologue. Her monologues are alien to start, filled with philosophical and technical terminology driven entirely from her religious views, philosophy, and training in alternative therapy. There's even a montage of her performing reiki and sound therapy on clients at a cancer treatment center. That matter of fact expertise is slowly layered into subjects more people have likely heard about--the destruction of the environment, immigration, the negative repercussions of tourism, conservation--and her direct, matter of fact discussion of everything she encounters starts to make a lot more sense.
Her cadence is essential to understanding the film. The audience needs to be drawn to and confused by Beatriz at the same time for the dinner party to work at all. We don't understand her right away because of her eccentricities. The woman is raising a goat inside her house in a playpen and meditating with candles in front of a shrine to another goat. The film doesn't even use subtitles for Beatriz' Spanish dialogue until we're already at the dinner party. We are meant to not understand everything she says at first.
Once we've grown to love Beatriz as a character because of her positivity and calming presence, we're shocked by the world of extremely privileged white people who just don't understand her at all. She's a novelty to them. Even Kathy, the woman who invites Beatriz to stay for dinner, doesn't really understand her. Connie Britton, as Kathy, is a vision of performative tolerance and mild condescension; she knows that she should accept everyone, but it's clearly a struggle to accept someone like Beatriz. Beatriz is only of value for her skills that, frankly, only the richest people can afford. When she chooses to speak, they barely even hear her at first, let alone understand her. Beatriz has to choose to speak over people--an uncharacteristic act of aggression from her--to be heard. When she speaks, she has a lot to say, and she will not stop speaking until she is heard.
Beatriz at Dinner is a film about conflicting values and finding a voice. Beatriz says or does whatever she needs to by the end of the film to make a connection with these people who do not understand her. The don't want to understand her. She's not even part of their world. But for Beatriz, leaving herself in a state of anger or aggression without compassion and a turn towards understanding is unacceptable. She will be heard, she will be understood, and she will do what she can to heal.
That lingering target, the one person who must understand her for her own well being, is Doug. Doug is the billionaire on everybody's lips. He's the dynamic force in media with multiple scandals and failed property investments balancing out his few successes and showy acts of philanthropy. Under John Lithgow's masterful hand, you can't take your eyes off of a man who has never been told no in his life.
Beatriz will not back down until Doug acknowledges her as a person. Doug views no one as a person. Where Beatriz sees value in everyone, even Doug, Doug sees value in profit, success, and acclaim. It's an unsettling dynamic with no easy resolution. One night is not going to change their minds, but that night will not be an easy one when neither will back down from their beliefs.
Beatriz at Dinner is a hard film. It's quiet, but filled with ideas and actions that leave an impact. It's a masterfully crafted drama grounded in our extremely polarized political society. That's its true purpose. There's a turn at the end of the film that reveals so much about everything that happened with a short, simple sentence. It's ancient Greek tragedy at its finest, a fulfillment of a dramatic promise made early in the film in an unpredictable way that ultimately is the clearest distillation of the themes.
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