Thursday, February 17, 2011


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu doesn't usually make very 'happy' films, or characters who are going through anything very pleasant, at all, and Biutiful is no change to that trajectory in his career.  And indeed it may be even more depressing than 21 Grams, which was a film that dealt with death and grief, and Babel, which dealt with the ramifications of a guy with a gun and a victim and a girl unrelated but just as unhappy.  I suppose that's his game: if you need some message of 'Humanity can be fucked', Inarittu is your man, and always with depth and intensity.

In Biutiful the protagonist, Uxbal played by the always-present-and-great Javier Bardem, finds out he has cancer, and even with treatments (which he decides to opt out of) he only has a couple of months.  In this time he could have the chance to straighten things out with his life, and have the comfort of his family.  But for Uxbal, this is not as easy as it looks.  He's a kind of shady character on the streets of Mexico (though I think it was shot in Spain?)

He assists in making deals with illegal immigrants- from Senegal and parts of Asia- but is not as shady as other characters in similar work.  He hates that the Senegalese get caught for drug dealing (and he, too, is caught in the raid that sprawls out in one epic scene into the streets), and that the Chinese labor is being exploited.  But he, too, is an exploiter, and is only a notch or two above the scummy Chinese labor-cattle-drivers, and keeps on doing what he does to get his cut of the money.  He finds some peace in helping out a Senegalese mother with a baby, yet can't help what happens at a crucial, heartbreaking moment later in the story that involves much death - and, arguably, at his fault.

Uxbal also has problems at home; custody of two kids and an ex-wife who is bi-polar, and yet earnest in her lov and affection as she is with her bouts of craziness and despair.  So, too, are things wacky with his brother, who is also a shady character in business dealings and more than likely with his ex-wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez).  He could reveal all of what's going on with him to them, but he'd rather focus on things moment to moment: minutia at the dinner table (a "stop kicking the table" scene carries more drama than expected, though not to melodramatic proportions), or with bigger things like Marambra's peaks and valleys as a person in general.  And all the while he has another 'thing' about him: he can speak to the dead.  Or, at least, that's what he sometimes makes people believe.  Whether they really talk back to him is another matter.

Biutiful could have been a rough slog through a depressing tale of a man coming apart, and perhaps it still is.  It is rough going as Uxbal is having to get by on his wits end, sometimes sick as a dog, other times sick of the people around him (though, of course, never his kids whom he loves and protects).  What makes it not just enudrable but moving is that the director Gonzalez-Inarritu is dedicated to never making things sentimental.  We see how much he struggles so that even when he is flawed, and he is, we can still feel for him when things get really bad and tragedy strikes.  He has true existential dilemmas: the responsibility for himself, what hangs over him in nearly every scene after he finds out he's dying, and to the others.  There's a particularly traumatic scene that the director shoots with a dark beauty as bodies wash up on a beach.  How they got there is shocking, though not as shocking as their first revelation in a warehouse-room where they are kept in-between office hours (that is, at night).

As with his first film, Amore perros, Inarittu's gaze is unflinching and raw, and I was absorbed in the drama unfolding.  If there is a criticism it's that the drama in some scenes goes on for just a minute long, lingering just for a few too many moments on some shots and scenes that are ancillary to the story.  It's never an unpleasant (that is not boring) mood set in, but at two and a half hours for the story that's being told it's too long.  Where to cut I would feel embarrassed (or just unsure) exactly where, as so many scenes, particularly all of those with Bardem, have something interesting to them.  It's more of a matter of a few lines and a few beats just building up dramatic fat to them.  If it were cut by ten minutes it would be not simply very good but great.

Call me Friend-O one more time, I DARE you!

For some the length might be just fine, as a meditation (so to speak) on death and what matters when one is alive and with those he loves and what he can care for.  For me, Bardem was the key, and likely Inarittu's wildcard in case scenes got dull or didn't live up to their potential.  His is a serious, heart-rending performance where he becomes this character as he did Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.  It's such a good performance that I could forgive the film some of its shortcomings with some of its (non?) actors as he would pull the scene together with his sometimes-quiet intensity and making Uxbal so fragile even when he seems so strong.  And when Uxbal breaks down finally and sobs it's felt wholly on Bardem.  And when he's having a small moment with his daughter, sick and weary, and talks about a ring that was his mother's, it's certainly made far more emotional because of Bardem at the center.  In other words, there's soul here, boatloads.

I keep harping on him because, really, some of you out there would not be concerned to see this if not for him.  Sure, there would be some out there (and I would have been one of them if not for the star) that would see it simply for the dark drama, of a man in the midst of personal and professional chaos and with little hope. Biutiful is bleak and full of despair, not least of which for its many characters without speaking roles and "minority" in the country it's set, but there is light and pathos too.  A few scenes do let some levity come in, little stories around the same dinner table that can also carry the dark times.  It's a heavy film about life and its end, but should it be any other way?

Oh, and PS: The actress playing Marambra is excellent here, a fine match for a powerhouse like Bardem.  Id' be remiss if I didn't get one more mention of her here, and how deeply felt she makes her character: lived-in, warped, depressive, and like a hurricane at times.

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