“A change is as good as a rest” seems to have been the ethos utilised by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu with his latest release Biutiful (2010), recently nominated for ‘Best Foreign Film’ at this year’s upcoming Academy Awards.
Dropping the multinational, parallel narrative structure of past films Babel (2006), 21 Grams (2003) and his acclaimed debut feature Amores Perros (2000), Iñárritu cements the developments of Biutiful solely within the multicultural flats and factories of suburban Barcelona, this time focusing almost entirely upon a single character, sickly single father Uxbal (Javier Bardem).
Much of the post Cannes/pre Oscar discussion regarding Biutiful has been in relation to the performance of Javier Bardem in the lead role – for which he has just received a nomination for ‘Best Actor’ at this year’s 83rd Academy Awards – and rightly so. Despite impressive early collaborations with Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar in High Heels (1991) and Live Flesh (1997), it was his pitch perfect performance as moralist sociopath-cum-hitman Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers’ award winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s blood soaked thriller No Country for Old Men (2007) that stamped Bardem’s name on the global stage. And with due respect to Iñárritu and an impressive supporting cast, Biutiful is unquestionably Bardem’s film and his turn as Uxbal his best performance.
From the very first sequence – in which a sedate Uxbal discusses the life cycles of owls with an unidentified man, surrounded by a strangely uncanny, wintry forest vista – we find ourselves inextricably tied and bound to our melancholic protagonist, who we discover is slowly dying from terminal cancer. In a nod to Iñárritu’s previous efforts, contemporary socio-political issues of identity, immigration and ethic integration/exploitation are brought to the forefront via Uxbal, a shadowy middleman moving between Asian counter-fitters, African peddlers and cocaine fuelled opportunists. Outside of his work, Uxbal also has two young children to support, with their unpredictable, bi-polar mother Marambra (superbly realised by Argentine newcomer Maricel Alvarez) featuring only sporadically in their lives.
It is in Uxbal’s relationship with his mischievous son Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) and thoughtful daughter Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) that the majority of Biutiful’s emotional impact (and best moments) are to be found. Uxbal is never portrayed as the “perfect” father figure – he easily loses his temper at Mateo’s playful insubordination and is clearly not averse to breaking the law in order to make ends meet. However, Iñárritu succeeds in painting a portrait of a man doing the very best with what is available to him, in order to unselfishly provide for those that he is destined to leave behind.
The bustling streets of Barcelona itself are perhaps the nearest thing Bardem has to a co-star purely on the number of scenes we see depicting Uxbal through the near-unrecognisable Catalan capital, as he moves from errand to errand. There are none of the deep reds and vibrant yellow hues of Almodovar’s Barcelona-based melodrama All About My Mother (1999), nor (thankfully) are we given a whistle-stop, picture postcard tour of the Sagrada Família, Las Ramblas and numerous other clichéd landmarks a la Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Instead, Iñárritu presents a culturally rich, yet financially deprived community, where exploitation is rife, sadly at the expense of hope and aspiration.
There is even time for the director to suggest at what Biutiful may have become if he had adhered to his past use of multiple narratives (with our focus very briefly turning to two romantically entwined Chinese businessmen and a Senegalese immigrant plus child providing some respite from the often emotionally draining central story). However, thankfully Iñárritu manages to suppress his more experimental urges, and both the film and Bardem have reaped the rewards of his commendable discipline.
Despite Biutiful being arguably Iñárritu’s purest work, one major flaw prevents the film from ever really being truly outstanding. A subplot involving Uxbal’s apparent ability to communicate with the recently deceased seems simultaneously tagged on and out of place, as do the strange, Sixth Sense (1999) style depictions of the ghostly dead. The film’s touching finale goes some way towards contextualising Uxbal’s “gift”, but it is unfortunately possible to visualise the tighter, more focused film that may have benefited from their omission
Iñárritu had spoken widely on his desire to effectively “think small” with his latest film after Babel’s exhausting shooting schedule – “If Babel was an opera, Biutiful is a requiem” – and the director has succeeded in creating a cinematic, melancholic love song to Barcelona’s unrepresented communities, with Uxbal as their totem. January has been a strong month for cinematic releases with the arrival of 127 Hours (2010), The King’s Speech (2010) and Black Swan (2010), and thanks to the superbly multi-faceted Bardem, Iñárritu’s Biutiful features a breathtaking central performance easily comparable with those of Franco, Firth or Portman.