“You and I know the dead suffer if they leave debts behind.”
dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2010, Spain
Alejandro-Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Biutiful” will unquestionably be one of the most polarizing films of the year. It hinges all on one tour de force performance and liberally mixes the religious and supernatural with the all-too-real. The film also aims to subvert your assumptions about race, class, sex and everything.
But what is also unquestionable is that Javier Bardem gives one of, if not the best performance of the year; that Innaritu has made one of the most gorgeous films of 2010 and it contains some of the most arresting moments; and that “Biutiful” is a seriously provocative film. Days later, you will not only be recounting just the images but the ideas, the feelings and the beliefs that are packed so densely into this movie.
Bardem, in what has to be his best role since the Coen Brothers film (“No Country for old Men”) that made him a star, plays the cancer ridden criminal Uxbal. He is not a hitman, nor a getaway driver, as this is not a Hollywood film. We’re in Barcelona, Spain and Uxbal is one of the heads of a piracy ring, his job being the supervision of illegal workers. They move immigrants from China to Spain, pack them in inhuman conditions, and have them work 16 hours a day to produce the fake Gucci bags everyone loves to buy off of street corners.
But again, since this is not an easy film, this alone does not make Uxbal a bad man. He works to help these people’s lives; he truly cares for the human soul. A few times, we see him help the ghosts of the dead come to peace with their demise, allowing them to “move on from the other side.” A lesser film would make it clear whether this is actually happening or if Uxbal is seeing things, but Innaritu has no use for such details.
Innaritu is not afraid to look directly upon the sickness that ails him nor the ‘dirty’ past of the man he is studying, inserting shots of Bardem urinating blood or drawing his own sample because of his proficiency with heroine needles. Indeed this is a rough film, those with weak stomachs or conservative tastes should likely look elsewhere. But for those wanting a film about human beings, filled with human emotion, and yet not devoid of the intangible feel that comes with great cinema, Innaritu’s film is for you.
Uxbal’s family is the heart of the film, the force that drives Uxbal through his journey, the vindication of his actions and beliefs. Slowly the film reveals the people who have come to shape his life, such as his son and daughter — the reasons he’s been forced into this life of illegitimate cash and illegal people.
We meet his brother, his manic depressive ex-wife, his mother figure (both parents are dead), even his dead father. Each character adds another layer to Bardem’s performance and another key to the puzzle of this film. It is a credit of the highest order that when all the pieces are together – issues of fatherhood, morality, crime, religion, love, compassion – everything makes more sense, rather than fall apart.
Yet all this history is never shoehorned in, it arrives in perfect asides, dream sequences or moments of despair. And never once does the film shove a character detail in your face. As Intricately detailed as these characters are, you’re expected to pick up the subtleties yourself. Don’t expect a close-up for every important touch; this is actually a film where you won’t be checking your brain at the door.
Innaritu catches moments with the eyes of a poet. Filming with handheld, he doesn’t use it as a crutch or an excuse. Rather, he finds carefully composed moments while using the lightweight cameras to aid reality, rather than to aid laziness. Whether it’s the glistening sun filtered through a dirty car window, or the perfectly laid snow of a recurring dream, he captures every moment with pure magic.
He makes the decisions of an eternally confident filmmaker, switching aspect ratios three times throughout the film, and including scenes whose meaning is not revealed until far later in the film. It seems clear to me that avoiding the limitations of the American film industry is a must for Innaritu. While his last two films (“Babel” and “21 Grams”) were full of good and bad moments, “Biutiful” recalls the perfectionist mood and style of his debut, “Amores Perros”.
You may think this film sounds oppressively bleak, and indeed it puts you through the ringer. Yet, it’s a great film exactly because it can retain a note of hope through the acidic nature of reality, finding spiritual enlightenment through the tragedies of life in Spain. There are characters (such as a Senegalese woman and her child whom Uxbal cares for) within this film that contradict every nihilist accusation thrown against Innaritu by critics, and that make this an honestly uplifting work of art.
It’s certainly not an exhilarating film, nor the most innovative. Innaritu falls somewhere between the handheld cinema of John Cassavetes and the Dardennes Brothers, and the slow paced contemplative cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni. He doesn’t go as far as Antonioni in drawing moments out, or as far as the Dardennes in adhering to shaky camerawork, but the medium he finds allows him to pull the most out of the realist acting from his top class crew.
“Biutiful” isn’t a film for everyone, but it is a damn good film, possibly even a great film. If you’re the kind of person who isn’t immediately turned off by a 150-minute slow paced character study filmed in Spanish, then I imagine you will find something of interest in this film. In a day of mindless thrillers and torture porn, I don’t see how anyone with a brain couldn’t find something to like in something as confident and unique as “Biutiful.”