Visually provocative Mexican New Wave director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who started out with great and wonderful promise, now seems to grow more bloated and more pretentious with each film he makes. His 2000 debut, the frantic near-masterpiece of urban and social decay, Amores perros (which also gave Gael García Bernal his cinematic start) was like a fresh insanity on the filmic block (and I mean that in the most complimentary way); and his follow-up, the American-made 21 Grams was another strong work of crosscutting, intermingling disasters. Then came the ostentatious, globetrotting Babel which, though given a critical pass by many (and nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director), was a swollen sheep's bladder of a movie, seemingly made specifically to showcase the cause célèbre of the day (and win awards at the end of that day). Now granted, the filmmaker's fourth film, Biutiful never reaches the exalted self-righteous loftiness of Babel, but it does dare to fly in that same sanctimonious air.
Basically the story of a mid-level underworld go-to guy named Uxbal (played with the greatest of aplomb by the always wonderful - no matter the movie around him - Javier Bardem) who seems - to the best of my understanding (it is never actually spelled out) - to be the mediator between Senegalese drug dealers, Chinese slave traders and the crooked cops who turn a blind eye (sometimes) for a price. All of this takes place in the parts of Barcelona not often shown in the guide books - the gritty part of the city that plays as the polar opposite of the Barcelona seen in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona (which stars a very different Bardem as well). If this were not a harsh enough existence, Uxbal must also deal with a crazy, bi-polar wife who is sleeping with his brother and beats their young son, all while painfully dying of a prostate cancer that will claim his life in mere months. Oh yeah, and he also works as a psychic communing with the recently dead (in a subplot of sorts that is never really much delved into other than as a way to say goodbye to his loved ones).
With the haughty (albeit it in a slightly lesser grade) portentousness seen in Babel (and I suppose alluded to but overpowered by the auteur's still fresh visual style in his first two films) Biutiful is a conundrum of a movie. Overwrought and overbearing at times (the director's screenwriting partner of his first three films is not around for this one - which may have more than a slight bearing on such things), Iñárritu gives us pockets of stunning filmmaking (the dance club scene, the tragedy at the factory, the police raid on the illegal workers and dealers, the scenes between Uxbal and his semi-estranged wife, the penultimate moment alone with his daughter) and as a great director of actors, we are given several breathtaking turns of acting prowess. Bardem, of course is brilliant as always in what is essentially a Christ-like role (in what amounts to a tragic, urbanized and modernized Passion Play) and he is kept pace with by the strangely alluring Maricel Álvarez as the aforementioned bi-polar wife who breezes in and out of her children's lives, making promises no one in the right mind (even a seven and a ten year old) would ever expect her to keep.
It is in this conundrum that makes one hesitant to call Biutiful either a good film or a bad one. It surely never reaches the arrogant and smugly self-satisfied lows of Babel, but just as equally never reaches the audacious highs of Amores perros or 21 Grams (though it is certainly closer to the former than the latter two). It's overblown and immature sincerity (Iñárritu's childlike ideas of religion and spirituality would not be mistaken for those of directors such as Dreyer or Bresson) is somewhat made up for by the director's prowess with set pieces (the cinematography by Iñárritu regular Rodrigo Prieto is stunningly stark) and the performances of his actors (along with Bardem and Álvarez, we also get a touching naturalism by Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella as their children), but such things can only save such a heavy film for so long before its 147 minute runtime (and this is not exactly the feel good movie of the season!) gets the best of the more faint-hearted filmgoer and makes even the bravest wish for a merciful end. Such a thing does eventually come. [03/20/11]