Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Alejandro González Iñárritu, director & co-script w/Armando Bo & Nicolas Giacobone
Starring: Javier Bardem (Uxbal), Maricel Alvarez (Maramba), Eduard Fernandez (Tito), Diarytou Daff (Ige), Hanaa Bouchaib (Ana), Guillermo Estrella (Mateo), Cheng Taishen (Hai)
Alejandro González Iñárritu is an auteur, one of the finest filmmakers in the world. Biutiful, his latest, is an incredibly passionate, deeply felt tale of love, death and sorrow. That’s the kind of film he makes: you can call it 21 Grams or Amores Perros or Babel but the intensity and tragedy are always there. His cinema has the emotional resonance of opera. What the films miss–quite significantly–are the great voices and the wonderfully melodramatic plots, which can keep one vastly entertained between set pieces.
If Iñárritu wasn’t so gifted, you could dismiss him. This is one artist who doesn’t want to simply entertain you. But everything in Biutiful works: the slow unfolding pacing of scenes, the atmosphere of melancholia, the dark cinematography that deserves its own phrase–let’s call it “gothic realism,” instead of “neo-realism.” When this director transports you into a location, you feel like you’ve lived there for most of your life.
Most of all, Iñárritu gets great performances. Think of Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in 21 Grams–were these two great actors ever better than in that film? Here, for the first time, the director has been able to work with Javier Bardem and the results are magical. Bardem has the immense physicality of Anthony Quinn and Jean Gabin in the 1950s: like them, his body commands your attention in every scene he’s in, whether he speaks or shows emotions or not.
In Biutiful, he pulls back the malevolence he showed so effectively in No Country for Old Men and the sexy humour he offered in Jamon, Jamon and Vicky, Christina, Barcelona. He offers instead the compassionate, defeated romanticism that made his profile of doomed poet Reinaldo Arenas so compelling in Before Night Falls.
For Iñárritu, he gives a memorable performance as Uxbal, a tragically conflicted character. Uxbal is a con artist, a shyster businessman, who will do anything to support his young kids, Ana and Mateo. He is a man with heart who suffers every misdeed he sees–even the ones he has created.
It wouldn’t be an Iñárritu film if we didn’t find him at the worst point in his life. The Uxbal we follow as the film unfolds is nearly broke, recently separated from his wife and the sole support of his kids. That’s when he discovers he has cancer and will die very soon. Biutiful involves us in the fateful decisions by a man at the end of his tether, trying to desperately to do the right things, while atempting to provide for his children.
It’s a testament to the artistry of Bardem and Iñárritu that Biutiful keeps on winning awards instead of being dismissed as a willfully negative work of art. But it’s true: Bardem won Best Actor at Cannes and he’s nominated for an Oscar in the same category. And Biutiful is up for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
The accolades are deserved. Biutiful is an intense cinematic vision of a kind of hell. But like Thomas Hardy, whose novels Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Ubervilles became increasingly hard to attract a supportive audience, Iñárritu may be moving too far towards the dark side of life. If Iñárritu’s future works don’t start to embrace the humour and joy in life, his art may reach a null point.
Still, Biutiful is terrific; one feels forced to advise potential viewers to see the film and accept its pain.