According to Biutiful’s press notes, Alejandro González Iñárritu claims that he’s had enough of “multiple lines, fractured structures and crossing narratives.” That isn’t true, though one thing is undeniable: The Mexican filmmaker hasn’t lost his appetite for overstatement. Maybe he believes in a vengeful god. That’s one way, at least, of explaining how everyone in Biutiful, not just its main character, is a walking guilt trip. González Iñárritu’s punishing, nuance-erasing ethos—call it a muckraking imperative—consistently distorts social tone: He could make Rodeo Drive look like a South African shantytown, which is how he essentially sees Barcelona throughout his new film. The cosmopolitan Spanish city, unrecognizable to these eyes, becomes the setting for the Job-ian saga of a man, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), who tries to put his affairs in order after learning he has terminal cancer. The problem isn’t that this underworld doesn’t exist in Barcelona, but that it’s the only side of the city the filmmaker cares to see.
Like Matt Damon’s character in Clint Eastwood’s kookily sincere and unabashedly sentimental Hereafter, Bardem’s Uxbal is hired by grieving families to converse with their recently departed loved ones. González Iñárritu’s unfussy fixation on Uxbal’s genuine gift becomes the film’s most interesting and least strenuous plotline, and it’s largely through Bardem’s fiercely physical performance that you get a creepily abstract sense of how these conversations with the dead seem to have contributed to his cancer. Freakish moth-like creatures hang from his ceiling, taunting him with the death they appear to represent, but they’re more than a filmmaker’s busy affectation. Bardem’s haunted face—a visage that, while morose and not without its flashes of anger and fear, never belies his character’s acceptance of death—truly suggests these creatures are a dying man’s hallucination, transmissions from an afterlife that calls to him.
It’s strange that the film’s most floridly aesthetic articulations of grief should also be its most tranquil. Maybe it’s because Bardem suits González Iñárritu: This fine actor’s discreet consideration of Uxbal’s turmoil helps to bring a talented but hyperbolic filmmaker down to earth. At its best, Biutiful, essentially a miserablist’s version of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, is a reflection on emotional and spiritual inheritance and the decay of the human body. It’s a muddled vision, but it feels poignant and realistic throughout scenes depicting Uxbal trying to ensure for his children’s future and helping his junkie wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), keep her shit together. At its worst, though, the film feels overstuffed, raising more questions than it’s prepared to answer, saddled with extraneous storylines that don’t exactly illuminate Uxbal’s experience, existing only to stress, over and over, González Iñárritu’s cynical view of human life—that we all die as guiltily as we live.
In the end, you may be forgiven for thinking the film is another collaboration between González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga. Though Uxbal’s slow waltz toward death is the narrative’s dominant line, it does frequently intersect with the stories of undocumented workers, African and Asian, for whom Uxbal negotiates rights on their behalf with police and sweatshop owners. Dubiously, the three languages spoken in the film are subtitled in separate colors, though not in the colors one might expect: white for Spanish, blue for Chinese, and yellow for Wolof. This woefully misguided decision isn’t an artistic one; it’s an act of capitulation to subtitle-phobic audiences that underestimates and insults the average person’s perfectly natural ability to recognize differences between languages, even when they’re not being spoken at the same time. And though this marketing ploy happens to send out a mixed message (emphasizing cultural difference while simultaneously screaming “United Colors of Benetton!”), it’s one that’s certainly in keeping with González Iñárritu’s work until now.