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Biutiful

May 17, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Out on DVD/Blu-ray next week…

Biutiful
(Alejandro González Iñárritu, Sp, 2010)

Iñárritu hasn’t shrugged off every bad habit, but this is a jazz solo in the key of despair, with Bardem a Miles Davis of misery

Amores Perros was one of world cinema’s most startling debuts – kinetic, accomplished and moving – and it heralded a renaissance in Latin American filmmaking that spread via Cuaron, Del Toro, Mereilles and Salles. But it was that film’s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, who travelled the furthest, to Hollywood in 21 Grams, then across the world in Babel. Trouble is, he took some bad habits with him, and Iñárritu has proven to be one of the most frustrating breakthrough directors of the past decade.

Iñárritu’s vaulting ambition soon turned into pretension, his films exuding the shallow air of insisting on grand statements without anything more to back them up than artfully contrived juxtapositions of time and space. Sure, these were fiercely acted, visceral experiences, but it has been increasingly hard to shake off the sense of an emperor hiding his new clothes through excellent posture.

In Biutiful, though he strips his style back…not so much to basics, because Amores Perros was complex enough to start with, but into a realm of simplicity he’s never shown before. The result is a chance to see what he can do without previous screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, and the most obvious change is an absence of structural dickying-about. Aside from its enigmatic opening sequence, this is a linear journey, and one played out largely on a single face: that of the soulful, statuesque Javier Bardem as underworld fixer Uxbal.

That said, this is not without its flaws. An unnecessary element of magic realism hammers home a spiritual subtext that Iñárritu could easily achieve without gimmickry: what the fuck is with the Gaspar Noe-esque interlude in a club where the dancers have breasts for heads? Meanwhile, the abundance of plot is arguably only to ensure a bigger crash when Uxbal’s house of cards collapses. Yet, mostly, this is an aching sad, profound tale of regret and redemption, so heartfelt and tangible Iñárritu easily brushes aside those objections.

What’s remarkable is how close Iñárritu skates to being offensively maudlin. In outline, this is one of those cloying films in the vein of 25th Hour, about a self-pitying criminal whose time is coming to an end, and who feels the need for some belated penance. That, in turn, heralds another personal bugbear: the Catholic guilt story, in which the solipsistic, introspective woe trivialises human drama by appealing to a higher power.

But Iñárritu and Bardem subvert things by making Uxbal faintly aware o his own hypocrisy. He’s a soft criminal, one who has rationalised dealing with the slave labour of illegal immigrants because some part of him genuinely cares for them. He’s a huckster, but one whose principles are on the boundary between morality and amorality in the Venn diagram of ethics.

This, of course, means he has very little to show for his life of crime – it’s only in comparison to the Chinese workers, huddled together in a freezing basement, that this could be construed as a life of Riley. His threadbare apartment is notable only for the wraith-like moths hovering over his bed like parasites of the soul, while his children face an uncertain future, caught between two equally flawed, very believable failures of parents. In place of the shabby chic of previous Inarritu films, this one is just shabby.

Uxbal’s discovery that he’s dying of cancer doesn’t change things beyond the extent of his willingness to be a good-ish Samaritan to his impoverished flock. But because he remains complicit in crime, his efforts are well-meaning but naive and ultimately disastrous – and, tellingly, his first reaction is to feel sorry for himself that he wasn’t able to get forgiveness. This isn’t a trait to be admired, or even pitied since Uxbal does that for us himself; all Iñárritu can do is get as close to the man as possible in order to understand him.

Bardem is absolutely relentless in absorbing the shock of the character, and I suspect he was robbed of the Oscar. In appearance, he’s as ashen and heavy-lidded as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, but the character is the polar opposite: not a man who controls the fates but who masochistically allows himself to be buffeted from one storm to another, hoping that if he can’t save himself at least he can help his kids. It’s a tremendous performance; strip away the crime trappings and it’s a study of masculine self-doubt and inner rage to rival Brando in Last Tango in Paris or De Niro in Raging Bull. Ultimately, it’s about a man confronting his mortality and pondering what will be left behind – something thrown into sharp relief, in the film’s most extraordinary scene, as Uxbal comes face-to-face with his own past

Thanks to Aim Publicity for the screener.

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