Biutiful is the new film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, one of the key Mexican directors of the last couple of years. Famous for Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, each a film with a wide canvas, with multiple lead characters and narratives that run along various different threads and each marred by a section that is just not as good as the rest, the Iñárritu weak link. With Biutiful, Iñárritu has taken a new direction, a single character study with a largely chronological narrative, and has delivered his best work so far.
Javier Bardem is fantastic as Uxbal, a hustler who runs scams with immigrant drug dealers and exploitative sweatshop owners. He is also bringing up his two young children alone, having become estranged from their bipolar mother (a very good screen debut from Maricel Álvarez). As well as this, he is also able to communicate with the dead, which he does, for a price, to comfort the living. Diagnosed with a serious illness, Uxbal sets out to put his affairs in order and to leave the world in a somewhat better state.
It is hard to talk about this film without focusing on Javier Bardem’s performance, which earned him the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as an Academy Award nomination. Appearing in almost every scene, he dominates the film like no character in an Iñárritu film has before. He even dominates the film’s visuals as the camera tends to follow him very closely from behind in the style that seems to be very much in vogue with Palme D’Or contenders since Rosetta, 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days and The Class. Essentially, the film stands or falls with his performance and is a great success as a result.
The film itself may take a while to get into. Its hyperrealist style is initially hard to appreciate until a riveting and brilliantly handled police chase. The supernatural element to the film presents Iñárritu’s typical weak link, undermining the otherwise intricately conceived and involving realism of the seedier side of Barcelona. It feels like an afterthought, one to lighten the blow of the emotional power of the film. At times, the film is very moving, but not consistently so, as it gets distracted by the spiritual. In a rather too self-conscious effort to avoid sentimentality, Iñárritu also attempts to make his spirits sinister, and his little subplot, apparently designed to give hope for Uxbal, diverts the whole film.
It may also be true that the problems that pile up on Uxbal are too many, making a film appear to be a less comic A Serious Man. Like the ghostly sequences, the story of the exploitative sweatshop owners feels like part of another film. Again, the film becomes over-complicated, distracting itself from what the film is actually all about, an insight into an urban, modern morality and the redemptive qualities of the family. The film’s key scenes are those in which Uxbal brings up his children and deals with their mother. These scenes take precedence and can be brilliantly moving, despite the film’s tendencies towards less interesting subject matter.
It seems a shame to criticize so moving a drama, but these quibbles are apt. Despite this, the lasting memory of Biutiful will be that of an immensely touching film anchored by a great performance. An intricate and riveting character study, it is Iñárritu’s best, not just least flawed, film.