At the Arthouse
Bardem shines in intense, New-Age fuzzy Biutiful
Director — and now also writer — Alejandro González Iñárritu has a lot going for him in his new film, Biutiful.
Specifically, he has the services of the perhaps the most charismatic and gravitas-blessed actor at work today, Javier Bardem. And Bardem really does give his all in creating his character, Uxbal, a Barcelona low-life who serves as a middle-man in funneling illegal immigrants towards exploitative jobs. And then one day he finds out he has terminal cancer. I wanted the movie to end faster than it did mostly because I didn’t want to see Uxbal/Bardem suffer any more.
González Iñárritu can also count on the camera skills of his frequent cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, and on his own powerful visual sense to create grippingly atmospheric tableaux on the mean streets of Barcelona. But, famously, he’s missing his old comrade-in-cinema, the writer Guillermo Arriaga. The two fell out after Arriaga clamored too loudly for recognition as co-creator, with González Iñárritu, of their films Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, and you do feel Arriaga’s absence.
Biutiful is superbly acted, even heroically in Bardem’s case, and is so visually dark and intense that it makes Barcelona look like hell on earth. But it’s also morbid and New Age-fuzzy.
The film doesn’t have the multiple intersecting storylines that some critics accused Arriaga of leaning on too heavily. If anything, the plot is too clear. At the beginning of the film Uxbal gets his death sentence—prostate cancer that he couldn’t be bothered to take care of in time — and by the end of the movie the sentence is carried out.
González Iñárritu will never be accused of subtlety. The bulk of the film shows Uxbal putting his life in order, in a painfully fumbling way, as he tries to secure a future for his two young children, and perhaps even for his estranged wife. But as if that weren’t story enough, González Iñárritu also has Uxbal being a sort of medium, able to communicate with the recently dead. (Clint Eastwood beat him to the punch with Hereafter.)
The film’s really strong scenes deal with the here and now, especially with the relationship between Uxbal and his estranged, bipolar wife. (You get the feeling González Iñárritu wrote this script with WebMD minimized on his screen.) They are very bad together, but the way Uxbal experiences her sufferings in his own flesh and spirit is very moving.
But at the end of the day, when — SPOILER ALERT — Uxbal is wandering around the afterlife, it’s not clear what all the angst adds up to. Maybe González Iñárritu thinks that’s how life will look from the other side, and we’ll wonder why we ever took all our suffering so seriously. I wound up asking the same thing about this film.
Arriaga’s first solo film, The Burning Plain, bombed out. I wish he and González Iñárritu would patch up their very nasty divorce. He appears to be the more tough-minded writer and creator of story.