Emotion sickness – Biutiful review

Biutiful – Starring Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez and Eduard Fernández. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

Every so often a movie comes along to remind me how arbitrary it is to assign a star rating to a film, as if anything could rightfully be called “a three out of five” or whatever. I usually attribute scores based on my gut reaction upon leaving the cinema – how enjoyable the comedy was (see: No Strings Attached), how thoughtful the sci-fi elements were (see: The Adjustment Bureau), the taste left in my mouth by the grim drama (see: Biutiful) – and although this occasionally changes when I later write the review, I often try to trust my first instincts, before hearing the picture defended or lambasted by others in conversation. So, what to say of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, a hard going, unpleasant film with a disconcerting undercurrent of xenophobia that is impeccably performed and (mostly) well crafted? Do I reward the skill and ignore the subtext, or vice versa, or cut the baby in half and give it a measly ol’ cop out of a score like three? No, seriously, I’m asking for your help.

The film is about a man diagnosed with a terminal illness who tries to tie up the loose ends of his life before his time on this earthly plane runs out. But the harder he works to fix things (including relationships with his ex, kids and brother), the worse they get, and the deterioration of his body soon aligns with his even more decrepit soul. Javier Bardem plays the man, Uxbal, a low-level criminal who is something of a union leader to the Senegalese immigrants who sell fake purses on the streets of Barcelona, and the Chinese immigrants who stitch them in a poorly-ventilated sweatshop. On the side, he attends wakes and does spirit readings on the dearly departed, helping them empty their hearts and move onto the afterlife. He’s no grifter; Uxbal genuinely speaks with ghosts. The fact that he is often successful in helping the dead find peace is probably the most cheerful plot element to ever appear in one of Iñárritu’s films.

Biutiful follows in the tradition of Iñárritu’s earlier pictures Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, in which a single character’s decisions can be as disastrous as that butterfly who keeps getting blamed for causing tsunamis on the other side of the world. The scope of this film is smaller, which is welcome (his previous pics seem to spiral out of control), but a little troubling from a character point of view. It is nice to have Iñárritu’s focus reined in, but the amount of devastation caused by Uxbal and Uxbal alone feels a little much. If Iñárritu previously suggested the human soul weighs 21 grams, Uxbal’s must be at least a kilo. It gets to a point where, much like Precious before it, Biutiful seems to grab onto your shoulders and scream at you, “Look how depressing this person’s life is!”

Bardem however is wonderful in the role, and the fact that he can sell such a Christ-like martyr carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders should be commended. I wish he had been given a little more of a dark side; I don’t know what to say of a character who is only accidentally responsible for the numerous tragedies of the film’s second half. The guilt must be tremendous, but if he’s truly sorry, are we ever expected to believe he won’t be accepted into the afterlife? Also, are the criminals who exploit immigrants really as kind and caring as Uxbal? A corrupt police officer chides Uxbal for being sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese and Senegalese workers, comparing them to tigers that would tear the face off their trainer if they were hungry enough. This unsettling comparison made by the racist cop is echoed in the final act, when both Chinese and Senegalese characters try to exploit and betray the sickly Uxbal for their own gain. Again, do we really need to stress Uxbal’s holiness by contrasting it with the immigrants’ ungodliness? It’s ugly.

Troubling connotations aside, Iñárritu’s craftsmanship has never been better. He opens the film with a couple of seemingly unrelated sequences (in two separate aspect ratios, which is kind of on the nose, but effective nonetheless), and by the time they are repeated at the film’s finale, they take on an overwhelmingly beautiful and cathartic significance. Those opening/closing moments, as well as a couple of nifty new camera tricks Iñárritu has seemingly picked up since his last picture imply that he’s recently been watching a lot of Gaspar Noe (note the nightclub sequence and the repeated sound effect of Uxbal’s beating heart). What else can I say? A solid “three out of five”. Oh, what the hell; the brilliant Bardem – who, it must be reiterated, is brilliant (and one more for good luck: brilliant!) – kicks the film up an extra half star. Whatever that means.

3.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Biutiful arrives in Australian cinemas March 24, 2011.

2 Responses to “Emotion sickness – Biutiful review”

  1. >Thanks for another thoughtful and intelligent review. Your love and respect for cinema really shows.

  2. This review summed up this disturbing and gritty – yet beautiful – film so well. Bardem is incredible.

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