by Tom Dunn
One would be hard pressed to call Alejandro Iñárritu a cheeky chap. Having finished his sombre Death trilogy a few years ago with Babel, he turns his vision of doom to Biutiful, a masterclass in audience depression. Near-unremitting in its bleakness, Iñárritu’s latest may be another gloom-fest, but it is also thought provoking, with a tender heart beneath the melodrama.
Divorced father, psychic, and petty crook Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is continually struggling to make ends meet. As a middleman for Barcelona’s networks of illegal immigrants (and speaker for the dead), his unconventional attempts to help others take precedence over his personal life, not only his doting children, but himself – to make things more complicated, he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. What follows chronicles Uxbal’s final days, struggling to put his not-inconsiderable affairs in order before it’s too late.
On the surface, it’s fairly clichéd stuff, not always helped by the fact that Uxbal, seemingly one of the only people who actually cares, is recurrently referred to in prophetic terms, and the plot sometimes lumbers under its own beating of concepts. What carries the film –at times making it soar – is the great combination of Bardem’s extensive range and the wonderful cinematography of the film. In execution, this simple melodrama achieves lyrical qualities, the gaudy, artificial delights of inner-city Barcelona haunted by suggestions of a beauty that hovers just beyond the camera’s gaze. Mirrors and shadows don’t always match their subjects, and the notion of death increasingly becomes something surprisingly mystical against the standard existential tones the film plays with.
In the end, it is hard not to care for Uxbal; his joys, as well as his plight, feel real. However, the film is somewhat marred by the incidental narratives occurring around him – threads don’t always tie up, and by the end, the director’s piling of obstacles becomes a little obvious. Despite its flaws, however, Biutiful is a compelling piece of cinema that lingers after watching. It may not be for everyone, but those who can stomach its slow, dark rhythm will enjoy.