People always say that movies are a means of escape. Whether science fiction or a love story, the dark of a movie theater allows us a respite from the monotony of everyday life, right? If so, then where does Biutiful fit in? Who could call this an escape? Surely there’s drama here, and a kind of kineticism that’s as exciting as it is alarming, but the grief is almost too much to bear; a degree of sprawling sadness no one could ever be thrilled by or even prepared for. There’s little point to telling a story so heartbreaking that we as the audience are taken past our limits, nor is there much to be said for exercises in extremes. No, to justify doling out anguish with such abandon there must be a point. Grasping the purpose of Biutiful is a bit like pulling out a thoroughly-embedded splinter, and in the end, just as satisfying.
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a man drawn taut between his enumerable commitments. He brokers underground and illegal deals for a fidgety Chinese criminal named Hai (Cheng Tai Shen), tries desperately to maintain a serene relationship with his bi-polar wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), and scrapes for every last penny in the interest of his two children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella). It is in some ways the familiar desperate struggle of a hopeless protagonist, and in others an entirely new glimpse into despair. Over and over the bar is raised on this tragedy. Life seems to throw things at Uxbal as though he’s an evil man, and karma exists, but if there’s one truth in this film it’s that Uxbal is a man with a good heart. He wants to do good, even if his circumstances rarely allow it to run its course. Though much of the story is about exploring the depths, the film allows some light to filter in at the end. Filled to brimming with anguish, Biutiful hardly suggests that it is life’s only characteristic.
There’s something inherently sad about Javier Bardem. He mostly hides it in his more playful roles, but in movies like this it just feels natural. With his huge, lidded eyes and gray complexion, Bardem was built for a role like this. And he seems to know that, living so entirely in the skin of Uxbal. It’s a great performance to be sure. So much so that at times it’s easy to forget he’s working. This is in part thanks to Director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s inspired work behind the camera. On top of a solid script, Iñárritu is doing some absolutely masterful directing. It’s one of those instances where a director reminds you constantly of his presence, but only because you can’t help but feel astonished at the quality. Sound, for one, is given a life in this picture unlike anything I’ve heard this year. Intimacy is terribly important to Iñárritu, and he pulls it gently from the hushes of a whisper and the scraping of an embrace. In a perfect moment near the end, Uxbal holds his daughter desperately close to him, and we can hear her heartbeat. These are small things, but they accumulate to a point of momental immersion, of being so viscerally connected you forget where you are.
It’s not simply sound that Iñárritu wields with authority, but picture as well. It’s easy to forget how truly gorgeous some films are until you see the right one, and Biutiful is a perfect example of this. It’s a dusky and scratched picture, and often the imagery is far from pleasant, but again, intimacy is paramount. Humanity is the focal point of nearly every shot, whether it be the good or the bad, the beautiful or the hideous. Even at its ugliest you can’t help but admire the quality of the footage or the masterful editing. We’ve all grown accustomed to a relatively similar style when it comes to the look of a film, and just as he did with Babel, Iñárritu has made a fool of convention.
As a storyteller, the man likes the twists and turns of life, and the way that human beings collide to force irreparable change. It’s interesting that this convention hasn’t worn out its welcome, as it’s blatantly present in all of his films. Perhaps serendipity is an intriguing enough notion that we don’t mind the convenience of it as a storytelling device. Whatever the case, Iñárritu does it well and has found a way to keep it mostly fresh. Admittedly, Biutiful runs a little long and this is due in part to his script’s commitment to telling more than just one story. Unlike Babel, this film works best when it focuses solely on its main character. A few scenes that stray too far outside of Uxbal’s story end up adding time and little else.
As far as criticisms though, that’s it. Biutiful, though one of the most deeply depressing films I’ve seen in long time, is truly beautiful. Put another way, it draws a line in the sand between beauty and depression, and then spends its 150 minutes as close to that line as it can. When an artist paints all in black, you have to consider his reasons. I don’t believe it’s enough to simply wallow without intention. Sadness is as powerful an emotion as any, but when wielded without intent it becomes manipulative and sick. Alejandro Iñárritu is far better than that, and has made yet another film you have to work for. His approach to film is as distant from the average Hollywood rom-com tripe as blood is from water, and we’re lucky that in conveying his beautiful misery, he chose a medium that travels well.