Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a filmmaker to be reckoned with. There's no denying it.
That standard answer is that they are miserable. Seriously, I defy to you to find one review on Rotten Tomatoes without some form of the word "miserable". Misery, miserable, miserabilist. There is undeniably truth to this. Suffering is to Inarritu's films what dancing is to Astaire and Rogers. Biutiful begins with funerals, poverty, cancer, sweatshops, and adultery and then it gets depressing. But there's got to be more to it than just downer material. I've never been one to shy away from sad movies and some of the bleakest are also the most fulfilling. From The Pianist, Umberto D, through Mike Leigh's Naked and right up to this year's Rabbit Hole. Unsparing, occasionally brutal films all of them, but I leave them feeling lifted up. Biutiful left me feeling beaten down.
|Biutiful / Ikiru|
In a lot of ways Biutiful mirrors Kurosawa's great Ikiru, only instead of a lead character with a death sentence trying to make up for a life wasted, this protagonist has a history of misdeeds to make up for. The protagonist in question is a low-level criminal named Uxbal, played in a performance of bottomless emotion by Javier Bardem. Uxbal works in Barcelona facilitating the hiring of cheap Chinese immigrant labor to work in sweatshops and construction sites. He is not an evil man, but he is more than willing to turn a blind eye to the consequences of how he earns a living. The rewards for this life are less than lucrative and he lives in a rundown slum with his two young children. The children's unstable mother is out of the picture since her manic depression and substance abuse makes her unfit to parent. Uxbal is more or less resigned to slog through this situation until a trip to the doctor suddenly imbues everything with a new urgency.
And did I mention Uxbal can communicate with the dead? The movie just casually throws that in as one more thing for him to deal with. He uses this skill to make a few extra bucks by dropping in on funerals to pass on a few last words from the recently deceased. Bardem's character doesn't appear to view this ability with much wonder, treating it at first as a particularly unpleasant way to make cash on the side, as if he had a night job unclogging toilets.
These story elements don't really work together as much as they are arranged as three roughly parallel tracks united by Uxbal's belated attempts to do good and a tone of oppressive sadness. The family storyline is most effective. Uxbal's need for a backup plan for his kids leads him to grant his repentant wife one more chance to reclaim her position in the household. There is even a brief window of happiness where it seems like there just might be hope for this family to pull itself together without everything falling apart as we certainly expect it to.
The supernatural element is the least successful. I see what Inarritu was aiming for and I think it was wise of him to mix it in to the story matter-of-factly giving it the same weight as all the other story threads, but at some point I think the film should acknowledge that this is kind of a big deal, don't you think? As it stands it's something of an afterthought, something that's referred to every half hour or so to remind the audience, "Oh, right. Dude can hear dead people." I think it's fair to ask if the script lacks focus if the whole communing-with-the-dead thing gets lost in the shuffle.
Bardem's performance in the lead role is far and away the best thing about Biutiful. I remember reading that Woody Allen said he wouldn't have even made Vicky Cristina Barcelona if he couldn't get Bardem for the lead, and watching him on screen you understand what he meant. Inarritu's film wouldn't work nearly as well as it does without Bardem's presence. He is compulsively watchable even in the dreariest moments, projecting at all times an intense soulfulness. He, along with the film's beautiful visuals, give the film a veneer of depth that the material doesn't necessarily support.
Also elevating the material is Maricel Alvarez as Marambra, the wildly unstable mother of Uxbal's children. She breathes live-wire energy into the material whenever she is on screen - energy that's lacking even in Bardem's performance since he's boxed into his tightly-coiled suffering. Alverez is playing a deeply-flawed person and atrocious parent but she avoids turning her into a hiss-able caricature. Instead she plays up her neediness and her despair in the face of her own uncontrollable mood swings. It's complex, convincing work and it would have been worthy of a surprise Oscar nomination to go with Bardem's.
Biutiful is far from a wipeout. You'd have to be a complete gargoyle not to feel some twinge of emotion in the film's closing scenes, and every so often Inarritu will give you a flash of the greatness the film could attain if he could marshal all the disparate elements into a cohesive whole. There's a smashingly filmed police raid on illegal street vendors, and a late-in-the-movie sequence in a nightclub that looks like it was shot on location in Hell. The craft of the film is pretty much impeccable down the line.
Yet in all Inarritu's post-Amores Perros films I don't walk out feeling like I've had a full meal. They have developed a kind of tunnel vision focus on pain that leaves out so much of the richness of life. In the end only faint echoes of the film's intended emotional impact reach the audience through the fog of artful despair.
Verdict: With some directors it's love at first frame. Sure you have the occasional spat (Burn After Reading or, say, Ready to Wear) but nothing dire. You're together for life. Then there are other filmmakers who are much more contentious. They're talent is too clear to be dismissed, but then so is their baggage. It's right up front, detracting from scene after scene until you shout, "Dammit, get it together. I want to love this." For me Inarritu is this second kind of director. He's clearly the real deal and one day I hope to emerge excitedly from a screening shouting that he has finally made the masterpiece he is obviously capable of. This is not that film. 5 out of 10