Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has always impressed me ever since his debut feature film Amores Perros way back in 2000. His unflinching style and portrayal of the dour and depressing aspects of life have served to divide audiences in the past. All of his movies (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) achieved massive critical and modest financial success. Iñárritu’s latest film, Biutiful continues this trend of bleak and depressing filmmaking this time returning to his roots with a native Spanish language film. Biutiful was eventually nominated for 2 Academy Awards, a best actor nomination for Javier Bardem (a first for a best actor nomination for a performance delivered entirely in Spanish) and Best Foreign Language film. Is Biutiful better than Iñárritu’s previous efforts or does this film suffer from the weight of its own wallowing.
It’s hard to describe the entirety of Biutiful’s plot. It’s such a beautiful multi-layered story that simply flows from one depressing event to the next. In a nutshell, Bituiful tells the story of Uxbal (Bardem) who is eking out a living selling bootlegged stuff created by illegal Chinese immigrants forced into slave labor in a warehouse by Uxbal’s business partners. At the same time, Uxbal must deal with his bipolar wife and the imminent threat she poses to the safety of their children. Adding to the misery, Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal cancer which he ultimately tries to hide from his two children. And to top it all, Uxbal is gifted with seeing the dead. Amidst all these issues, Uxbal tries to make sense of everything, looking for the real meaning and purpose of his life juggling between his responsibilities as a father, husband, and morally challenged citizen struggling with the themes of love, spirituality and guilt. Eventually Uxbal tries to make good with what remains of his life and attempts to do putative good deeds. Unfortunately in Iñárritu’s world, good things usually end up worse and what follows is an unfortunate and tragic train of events that lead from one hideous outcome to another.
Biutiful is a relentlessly depressing experience. It’s so gut-wrenching that this 2 hour and 30 minute film will leave you emotionally devastated. In fact, for a lot of people this is going to be too unbearable to get through and finish. All this is brought to life by a stunning performance by Bardem who in my opinion has delivered his best role yet, even better than his Academy Award winning performance in No Country for Old Men. He more than deserves his Oscar nomination for this role and in fact, I might even go so far as to say that he deserves this win more than Colin Firth (who also delivered a stunning, breathtaking performance in The King’s Speech). The supporting cast including Eduard Fernandez and Ana Wagener also deliver exceptional performances but they pale in comparison to Bardem. Had this film used less capable actors, it wouldn’t be this effective.
Biutiful is a visually arresting film. The whole film feels poetic with gorgeous cinematography and beautiful long lingering shots which may be off-puting for some veiwers. (Take note there will be long shots of water stains, ants crawling, doors opening, etc.) It all adds to the incredibly depressing atmosphere. Even the music by Gustavo Santaolalla whose work reminds me of his previous score for Brokeback Mountain is dour and heartbreaking. If you think there is one happy moment in this film, I have yet to find it.
Iñárritu’s direction and screenplay is nearly spotless. His style is as unflinching as before, wallowing in the horrors of tragic and broken characters whose lives are so horrible and their fates even more so. This is a story of Uxbal, and in a metaphorical sense the audience, living in Iñárritu’s nightmare. A beautiful nightmare at that. In fact, the whole thing will make you wonder why this film was given the title Biutful. (The orthographic spelling of Beautiful as it would have sounded to native Spanish speakers).
Is Biutiful as good as Iñárritu’s previous works? Let me put it this way, Biutiful is his most depressing film to date and considering his previous works were nothing but depressing, this already speaks a lot about how emotionally involving this movie is. I still can’t tell if this is his best work, but none of his other films come close to delivering an incredibly relentless downer of an experience than Biutiful. Having said that, this film is definitely not for everyone and a friend of mine told me the measure to liking this film halfway through is to ask yourself ‘How much heartache can you still take?’. It’s a very challenging movie to watch, and even the most jaded of viewers will find this unbearable. That is my stern warning to those who want to watch this for its feel good title and Bardem’s performance. But if you can handle this kind of stuff, then take the plunge in one of the best films 2010 had to offer.