Biutiful (2010)

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In the July 2010 issue of Sight & Sound, editor Nick James reduced the story of Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film, Biutiful, to its bare essentials: 'In order to make us sympathise with [the protagonist], Iñárritu gives him terminal cancer, a bipolar ex-wife, two needy kids, a murderous business partner, a failing illegal business – oh, and a supernatural gift that he's abusing, and a multiple-death accident.' Sometimes, a synopsis in itself stands as critique.

Biutiful is González Iñárritu's first film following what is now a trilogy of sorts, comprising the non-linear ensemble pieces Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), each of which were scripted by Guillermo Arriaga; the latest work, co-scripted by González Iñárritu with debutantes Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, might be a more linear and straightforward drama than its predecessors, but it continues its director's progression into fashionable miserablism.

To elaborate briefly on Nick James's knowingly dismissive synopsis, in Biutiful Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a Barcelona citizen who makes a living to provide for his two children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella, both brilliant) by exploiting his ability to contact the recently deceased and by aiding illegal immigrants and securing them work. Early in the film, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer and is given months to live. An attempt to reconcile with ex-wife Maramba (Maricel Álvarez) offers brief hope.

In dealing in a large part of its subplot with illegal immigrants and their desperate plight under transglobal capitalism, Biutiful concerns itself with some serious questions: general exploitation of the working class; the economic isolation of itinerant workers; the woeful conditions under which wage slaves and their families are expected to live and work (here, it is the same building); the ruthlessness of the state; and so on.

Unfortunately, these things are a backdrop to Uxbal's individual arc. This isn't a problem in itself, but as the film develops, the protagonist's story becomes increasingly hysterical - with approaching death and his fear of it a morally transformative banality - and the wider issues are cast aside, just as they become most interesting. Similar to Babel - which was also bloated - as the narrative unfolds, its strengths become more noticeable as its weaknesses gradually worsen; indeed, if González Iñárritu is a fundamentally limited artist (more on this in a bit), his plotting only exposes such limits.

Working with regular cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the director shows a typically keen visual sense of city space and the conditions that govern it. Just as Amores Perros gave a gritty realism to Mexico City, this is a much-needed revision of Barcelona following Woody Allen's post-card chic in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Accompanied (again) by Argentinian musician Gustavo Santaolalla's fine guitar work, the film's strongest visual moments might also be its most vacant - those 'contemplative' transitional scenes, familiar to González Iñárritu's work, in which he takes a breather from his otherwise grim narrative to allow time enough for the 'poetical' to set in.

These are fine moments (and the birds swirling in the sky are once again present too), and the film has plenty of images to boast for a one-sheet or a trailer. Bolstered by a reliable performance from Bardem - who this week received an Oscar nomination for the role - the film begins to resemble a work of substance. But it isn't.

The title of Biutiful seems almost to be a tellingly self-conscious proclamation on its makers' parts. For all the serious issues it courts, it seems more interested in providing a vague, and quite odd, spiritually triumphal story, of a man transformed, redeemed, and so on and so forth. In a word, the film purports to be, at the end of all its general humourlessness and, as I've already said, its fashionable miserablism, a work of "beauty".

This is perhaps most obvious in its opening and closing moments (there's really no need for the opening only to provide the narrative a "full-circle" wrap-up when it's repeated at the end), which place Uxbal in a paradisal, snowy forest. Less Ivan's Childhood (1962) than Robert Frost, it is visually removed from the rest of the film, and provides an art schoolish, almost juvenile sensibility to a film brimming with things to say but contented finally with saying nothing.

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