His previous films Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel were branded ‘the death trilogy,’ and Biutiful is no departure. His humanist brand of filmmaking always has latent conflict at its core; conflict with our past, our bodies, our poverty-induced morality.
Here, his vessel is Javier Bardem’s Uxbal, a gentle, weary man trying to make ends meet in the labyrinthine backstreets of Barcelona. Uxbal has two small children, a bipolar wife and a scumbag of a brother. He tries, vainly, to provide street work for African immigrants facing deportation and is single handedly responsible for the fate of 24 Chinese blackmarket workers. He has no food and a rotting home and is forced to cremate his buried father for a few more Euros. Oh yeah, and he’s terminally ill with cancer.
Quite a lot to deal with for one bloke, but if anyone can shoulder it, Javier Bardem can. Bardem is known to most cinema-goers as the remorseless murderer with the dodgy bowl-cut in No Country For Old Men and Woody Allen’s fantasy avatar in Vicki Cristina Barcelona, but prior to Hollywood he had a long and extensive career as Spain’s leading man, building a rep as an actor with serious character pedigree. He spent most of his time in a wheelchair in Pedro Almodovar’s acclaimed Live Flesh before gaining international recognition playing the rebellious Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls and an impressionable detective in John Malkovich’s The Dancer Upstairs.
As Live Flesh proved, Bardem has never possessed qualms about challenging his sex symbol status. He lost some serious weight for this film and, beyond sporting a ponytail, has to act in scenes when he repeatedly wets himself, urinates blood or, at one point, wears a nappy to show in unflinching detail the worst indignities of a cancer sufferer. He is in virtually every scene, many of them wordless, and carries the whole thing on his back. It is, by any standards, a heavyweight performance.
And thank God it is. Biutiful is Iñárritu’s first film that doesn’t involve his longtime screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga after they suffered a very public falling out. Iñárritu has never possessed subtly, but Arriaga would add intrigue by weaving their films around one tragic event, elusively shifting timeframes and perspectives, and his absence here proves almost terminal. Biutiful has none of these kaleidoscope complexities. Instead, it’sa painfully linear melodrama that begins to labour with a leaden monotony. The increasingly portentous sense of grandiosity never breaks or alleviates, and Iñárritu is forced to overcompensate. As such, the occasional flashes of brilliance that he is so abundantly capable of – like the opening scene, in which two hands slowly circle and lace, or the moment Uxbal hears his daughter’s heartbeat as he draws her close, or the overhead sequence when police chase street vendors who scatter like startled deer – are swallowed up, suffocated by overwrought overstatement.
The film is dedicated to Iñárritu’s father, and it seems he has become too close to what can justifiably be termed a passion project. We are all allowed our indulgences but, for the sake of cinema everywhere, let us hope he gives Arriaga a call, and gives peace a chance.