You know the old joke. Someone has hit what feels like rock bottom and asks, “How could things possibly be any worse?” Cue the driving rain. That’s about how it goes in Biutiful, the new film by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, but don’t expect to laugh.
Iñárritu’s latest ostensibly sets aside the “we’re all connected” narratives of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel in favor of a focused character study, but it’s still got that Iñárritutiful stamp: his bleak films comprise a sort of treasure hunt for hope, grace notes amid gravity. And they don’t get much more grave than Biutiful, the story of a man who learns that terminal prostate cancer is only the beginning (and end) of his troubles.
Barcelona bottom-feeder Uxbal (Javier Bardem) feeds his family with odd jobs: he’s a broker between drug dealers and corrupt cops, a trafficker of illegal immigrants to sweatshops, and a psychic ministering to the bereaved (as in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, we’re to accept that Uxbal’s power is real). For Uxbal, it’s all about his young children Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), or at least it becomes all about them as he comes to understand that his time is severely limited.
Devastated that he will become only a distant memory to Ana and Mateo, Uxbal puts enormous pressure on himself to protect their future and preserve his legacy. He can take no comfort from the children’s mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), whose struggles with bipolar disorder and drug addiction have long since destroyed her marriage. Naturally, the screw-turning pressures on Uxbal do not create an environment conducive to success, and matters go from bad to worse on the way to the presumable worst of Uxbal succumbing to his disease.
Ironically, there are fates worse than death for our tragic hero, who at least will find some peace in the end of misery. Audiences may feel the same way after the first ten minutes of this 148-minute drama. Screenwriters Iñárritu, Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone offer no whiff of comic relief, and there’s not much fresh air in Rodrigo Prieto’s perfectly sickly photography or the music of two-time Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Though technically impeccable, Biutiful improbably turns Barcelona into a previously unknown circle of hell.
Most damagingly, Biutiful doesn’t seem to have much to say about all this sadness, except that death, like love, makes us want to be better people. Certainly this is a meal we’ve swallowed before, and Iñárritu’s observations don’t bring much to the table. So why (oh why) would anyone want to take this two-and-a-half-hour tour of torment?
The sole compelling reason for non-masochists is to revel in the fine acting of Javier Bardem, who gives an unimpeachably searing performance as a man who’s as unhappy as this film will make audiences (but they may prefer to rent Bardem’s superior The Sea Inside). Beyond that, I can only say that biuty is in the eye of the beholder.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]