In 21 Grams and Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu displayed an egotistical flair for reducing all human experience to an unending carnival of misery. Admittedly an equal-opportunity sensationalist, González Iñárritu relentlessly demonstrates that all races and classes are destined to wallow in the filth of the cellar of a metaphorical prison built on hypocrisy and humankind’s destiny to misunderstand itself. 21 Grams and Babel are basically feel-bad Paul Haggis films for a wannabe hipper crowd, ridiculously contorted so as to allow audiences to congratulate themselves for their adventurous desire to keep it real and revel in rot from the safe distance of a theater across the street from their favorite coffee house—pulp that trades on human atrocity for instant artistic credibility.
This is particularly galling when you consider that Gonzalez Iñárritu’s first film, Amores Perros, was one of the more promising debuts of the last decade—a knotty, sweaty sort of epic that respected B-movie conventions while transcending them. There were moments in Amores Perros, especially in the ingenious subplot in which a trapped dog destroys a budding romantic relationship, that pushed beyond the conventions of pulp to acknowledge original and disconcerting emotional vulnerabilities. One didn’t feel that Gonzalez Iñárritu was getting off on his characters’ torment; no, one felt the exhilaration of a virtuoso, a natural-born filmmaker who might try anything.
Biutiful is a fusion of both kinds of González Iñárritu films—and, for that, it’s easily his best movie since Amores Perros. González Iñárritu’s split from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga might prove to be fortuitous, as Biutiful refreshingly lacks the iron-clad structured-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life contrivance that marred their three collaborations thus far. Biutiful, even at its worst, has a looser, shaggier feel; moments are allowed to live and breathe, which allows some of the characters the occasional bit of grace that was pointedly denied the participants of 21 Grams and Babel. Biutiful feels like the work of a clearly very talented director trying to break free of the kind of filmmaking that has defined him up to this point.
But there’s still quite a bit of nonsense, and the film’s most laughably grim notion is its narrow vision of Barcelona as a crime plagued wasteland. It’s clear that González Iñárritu resents the sexy, tanned paradise that characterizes most films’ idea of Barcelona, and that concern, while potentially understandable, doesn’t justify the squalidly gray ghetto that González Iñárritu has turned the city into by process of omission. The Barcelona of Biutiful is an interconnected city of criminals and slaves and drug dealers and crooked construction workers and drunk whores with broken dreams. At the center of it all is Uxbel (Javier Bardem), a contemporary Ikiru looking for a bit of redemption before the cancer inside him eats him away.
The film is overstuffed, to say the least; every device from every melodrama ever made has seemingly been worked into this thing. Uxbel, who is meant to impress us as a somewhat unsavory but tormented and generally well-meaning man, helps his sleazy brother wrangle Chinese immigrants into work orders that are unavoidably a form of slavery. He’s also a kind of psychic channel who can briefly see the recently dead—a gift that he profits from despite the stern admonishments of other channels. Uxbel is a middle-man with his fingers in a number of pies, but he’s struggling to raise his two children alone after his wife—who is, by my count, a treacherous, manic-depressive, schizophrenic, alcoholic drug addict—disappears into the streets sometime before the start of the film, only to unexpectedly reemerge later on.
Scene-by-scene, Biutiful is every bit as ludicrous as 21 Grams and Babel, but it lacks the pompousness of those films. González Iñárritu, as always, is clearly striving for a masterpiece, but there’s something—particularly in the current mainstream film climate—that’s refreshing about a folly this nakedly ambitious. The film is sometimes a neorealist parable in the vein of De Sica, sometimes an expressionist ghost story, and sometimes another of González Iñárritu’s itchy, paranoid panoramas of the worst that man can do. But the ungainliness, the occasional moments of spontaneity and poignancy (particularly between Uxbel and his family), and one legitimately wonderful performance mark Biutiful as an interesting folly.
Uxbel shouldn’t be playable, as the role has been saddled with too much metaphor and existential pontification. What Bardem, one of contemporary cinema’s greatest actors, has done here is amazing. Generally a robust, hearty man, Bardem has reduced himself physically here to convey Uxbel’s literal and spiritual gauntness. But there isn’t a trace of self-congratulatory vanity that causes a good-looking actor to go ugly, because Uxbel is still a beautiful and commanding presence. Bardem, as he usually does, gives his character a force of life that’s far beyond the material he’s been provided without over- or underplaying; the character simply is. And González Iñárritu, to his credit, clearly understands the gift Bardem is giving him. Occasionally these two men, in flickering moments here and there, earn the film’s title.
One of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s chief talents is conveying emotional disconnection through purely cinematic means (think of Babel’s stunning mute Tokyo club scene), and that verve and inventiveness is on clear display on this transfer. The blacks and overexposed browns and whites, which make up too much of the film, are in proper contrast, while avoiding the overly washed-out tendency that can plague films that are primarily lit in this fashion. The visual scheme is clear, coherent, and more than competent. The sound is simply fantastic, which is particularly notable in this film’s club scene (González Iñárritu is really damn good with emotionally terrifying party sequences) that utilizes the surround capabilities without wallowing in show-off pyrotechnics that distract from the atmosphere.
"Director’s Flip Notes," a spare, impressionist series of moments from the shooting of the film, is a nice variation of the traditional making-of featurette that’s usually so sleep-inducing. In it, González Iñárritu manages to elaborate on his intentions, show some footage, and market the film in question without overstaying his welcome; some mystery is allowed to remain and the shallow talking-head stuff is kept to a minimum. The interviews with the cast and crew are, once again, refreshingly less ass-kissy, but mostly pointless. The tribute to the film crew is trivial but mercifully brief while the trailer is, well, just a trailer. Generally, these extras are a more tasteful than usual version of what you normally encounter on a generally barebones disc.
A strong presentation of a film that could prove to be key in the evolution of a potentially major talent.