Milos Stehlik reviews Inarritu’s latest film “Biutiful”

January 28, 2011

Produced by Milos Stehlik

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"Biutiful" is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new film.

One of my earliest television memories is of Salvador Dali as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Dali, who by this time was less an artist than a celebrity peddler of the mass reproductions of graphics, was positing the theory that words in English should be pronounced onomatopoetically – that is, in the suggested sounds of the spelling. So a “butterfly” would become a “butter-fliiiieeee” and “beautiful” would become “beuuuutiiiiifullll.”

That principle applies to Alberto Gonzalez Inarritu’s new film, “Biutiful” – spelled “b-i-u-t-i-f-u-l” — the misspelling intentionally carried over from a spelling by the protagonist’s young daughter. What’s beautiful here is outside any conventional sense because this is a film about stress, broken relationships, loneliness and exploiting others. It’s a film shot largely in dark colors, in a Barcelona which exists outside any tourist destination. And yet the beauty here is a deep portrait of a tragically-cast stoic individual trapped in a whirlpool of survival. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is getting largely insensitive reviews, with the exception of A. O. Scott from The New York Times, who sees “Biutiful” as a kind of modern day-passion play. That is an interesting lens through which to view this film.

Uxbal, the protagonist - in a career-defining performance from Javier Bardem – is, in fact, a man of troubles. His ex-wife, a bi-polar drug addict, can’t give up on prostitution, all the while sleeping with Uxbal’s sleazy brother, who runs a nightclub. Uxbal survives by hustling and supplying African vendors who peddle counterfeit watches and bags, and he provides for Chinese sweatshop workers by acting as the go-between for the cops and factory owners. He has an advanced case of prostate cancer and — he sees dead people, communicating with the recently deceased.

All of this may seem a bit much – a huge helping of human misery served to one individual. Some people will see the film, take it as just too much, and give up. Yet, I say “Biutiful” is a truly mature, adult film – in the best sense of the word – it’s a film about survival — and how the stress of that survival challenges our individual moral compass. In comparison, the moral issues in other contemporary films, like the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” or David Fincher’s “The Social Network” seem like over-simplified fable-books for children.

In “Biutiful,” the weight of guilt and morality is placed on the shoulders of one person, in Javier Bardem’s totally astonishing performance. Bardem doesn’t flinch in the face of adversity as he struggles find his moral core. He wants to be a good father to his children and to “do right” by the illegal immigrants who depend on him — yet he’s a hustler — struggling in a universe which thrives from the exploitation of others. He’s an operator, yet trapped in the system machinery he wants to manipulate — what can one do?

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directs the film, whose previous works include “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel.” Much is made of the fact that this is Inarritu’s first film without Guillermo Arriaga, the screenwriter of his previous three films. I find this irrelevant. Inarritu has never been a filmmaker who takes on small themes. He likes complexity colored with the melodramatic. He layers narrative that never quite congeals. He creates edgy montage and soundscapes that are contrapuntal to his visual design. Inarritu has big ideas, yet has an iron grip on small details. And he won’t shy away from big emotions, and tends to see the world in allegorical terms, with stark divisions between good and evil. Him film contradictions do excite. All this, and his Mexican culture, form the core of Inarritu’s growth as a filmmaker. “Biutiful” is a film of — and for — bleeding hearts, not human icons filtered through a prism of French existentialism.

Inarritu is also a precise visual stylist, and revelation in “Biutiful” comes in small, silent moments; as a flock of birds suddenly shoot off a Barcelona rooftop against a bleach-gray sky, or unforgettable shots of the Chinese sweatshop workers huddled against each other in an industrial basement. “Biutiful” is not an easy film, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Its imagery and moments — beautifully captured by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto — will get under your skin. “Biutiful” will haunt you, and might force you to contemplate your own place in the world — why you’re here — and what comes next.

Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia and Worldview’s weekly film contributor.

 

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