Director Alejandro González Iñárritu should be crowned the undisputed King of Pain. I am not talking about a WWF champion who derives pleasure from inflicting pain on his opponents, but a director whose every movie is about representing pain through characters caught in hopeless, intertwining situations. For instance, Iñárritu’s last two movies, “21 Grams” (2003) and “Babel” (2006), have been about interconnecting stories; obviously, not happy ones. Nothing in his movies is joyful, and his characters hardly laugh, let alone smile. OK, I lied about the last part, since “Biutiful” has one happy sequence in which all the characters laugh, although momentarily.
Using multiple story lines and characters, Iñárritu’s films are always loaded with sappy drama, melodramatic moments, and manipulative emotional situations–ultimately making the films utterly depressive. These fundimental elements worked in his last two movies, although I am not too wild about “Babel.” Integrating similar themes seen in his previous movies, Iñárritu’s “Biutiful” comes five years after the success of “Babel,” but it also marks his first Spanish film since his debut movie, “Amores Perros” (2000).
At its heart, “Biutiful” functions in a similar vein as “Babel” and “21 Grams”: it deals with death. The main protagonist, Uxbal, played superbly by Javier Bardem, is suffering from a terminal disease and has only a few months to live. He lives in a small apartment with his two kids and is also separated from his neurotic wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez). Marambra is physically abusive to the kids, and Uxbal worries for their well being after his death. Uxbal earns his livelihood by providing work permits to illegal immigrants in Barcelona. Eventually, he ends up being on the wrong side of the law. The domestic tension continues in Uxbal’s life, and with no option, he finds solace in an unlikely immigrant friend.
Even though death is the primary focus, Iñárritu adds a political tone by presenting the idea of an influx of illegal immigrants in Spain. But, I can’t clearly make out if this was Iñárritu’s desire. Certainly, it is a parallel element in the film around which Uxbal’s world revolves. On the other hand, if you look at “Babel,” Iñárritu created multiple story arcs that inexorably connected several characters, and, more important, it offered a growing political concern in the form of an uncontrolled gun trade crossing borderlines. Somehow, “Babel” connected to us in this aspect, despite contrived situations. In “Biutiful” we see the distressing work conditions of illegal Chinese and African workers, and we truly sympathize for their plight, especially in a heartbreaking scene at a Chinese warehouse. In spite of constructing a wholehearted political pitch for Spain’s growing illegal immigrant population, “Biutiful” never manages to awe us in any way.
Part of the problem lies how the script tries to overlap these scenes with Uxbal’s life. At least the world Iñárritu created in “Babel” and “21 Grams” was formed on coincidences and destiny, and to a certain extent it succeeded in conveying realistic circumstances. However, in “Biutiful” Iñárritu has deviated from his traditional formula, as he takes out the “coincidence” factor from the lives of the characters. In the process, he also drops the intersecting subplots that led to a nonlinear structure in his earlier films. As such, in a storytelling aspect, Uxbal’s interaction with the immigrants is never emotionally fulfilling, even though the state of the immigrants is realistically heartbreaking. There is something lacking in these scenes. We end up believing Uxbal’s presence at a Chinese warehouse is not a mere coincidence. Even so, Uxbal is fully aware of an exploitative relationship that exists between him and the immigrants and that no one enforced him into this situation, which is quite the opposite of the situations of the characters in “Babel” or “21 Grams.” We don’t know how to respond to Uxbal’s imminent death or at seeing the deplorable immigration issue. The problems in the script are further compounded by writing that solely magnifies Uxbal’s personal problems; this overshadows the pertinent immigration issue, and the cross connection of Uxbal’s life with the immigrants fails to solidify into something more memorable.
Portraying pain is an important aspect in the film, and the filmmakers have made a perfect choice in their casting of Javier Bardem in the principal role. Bardem gives his best performance to date, surpassing an Academy Award-winning performance in “No Country for Old Men.” It’s a challenging role that is elegantly carried out by Bardem. Elegant not in the sense of a beautiful-looking, fashionable man, but, rather, I use this word to exemplify the ease with which Bardem displays pain in Uxbal’s world. He appears comfortable and totally in control by exhibiting the right emotions expected from an emotionally ailing character. His face gives the appearance of a person who has soaked up sorrow all through his life. Bardem’s character is quiet and distant with the outside world, yet he balances himself every time life throws him a curveball. A terminal disease, a lack of money, and domestic instability all add to Uxbal’s woes. Bardem is placed in multiple, complicated situations, and nowhere does his performance slack; it’s a role with a lot of variations. In addition, he genuinely makes you believe in Uxbal’s suffering through his intense performance by placing the viewers in his shoes. You are attached to his world, and we begin to wonder what will happen to Uxbal’s kids after he is gone. Bardem’s compelling performance is the only reason to watch “Biutiful” and for which he also received an Academy Award nomination in 2011 for an actor in a leading role.
As a canvas on life, “Biutiful” is surely beautiful to look at. Nonetheless, the script is a bit underwhelming, and while the performances do lift the movie, it is not enough. The film is a long ride, and it takes good time to set things in motion. The middle act is excruciatingly slow, and there are points in the story where you are waiting for something to happen. It’s only in the final act where the film gathers pace. Indeed, “Biutiful” is in a need of some serious editing. In the end, it is the performances that matter in the film like this.
Lionsgate presents “Biutiful” in a crisp-looking 1080p transfer, encoded using an AVC codec in multiple aspect ratios of 2.35:1 and 1.85:1. Uxbal’s world is obviously filled with sorrow, and the filmmakers have deliberately stripped the use of colors in this film. As a result, the film’s palette mainly consists of greys and whites. The transfer packs in immense depth and clarity; the sharpness is consistent throughout. The close-ups reveal significant detail, and the flesh tones are life like. The streets of Barcelona come to life, and the transfer retains all its positive attributes even in rapid action sequences. Overall, this is a gorgeous-looking transfer with no negatives.
Complimenting the perfect 1080p transfer, we get a perfect-sounding Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Mostly, a dialogue-driven affair, “Biutiful” features an effective sonic experience. The characters talk really softly to a point where it can become difficult to understand the dialogue. Luckily, the lossless track perfectly balances the pitch of the dialogue, and words remain consistently audible. The noises in the streets of Barcelona activate the surround channels, and you hear different types of noises with crystal clarity. Also, the film can be viewed with English subtitles.
First, we get a production featurette in which we see Iñárritu’s production notes in the form of video and audio clippings. Up next, we have a “behind-the-scenes” segment that shows the crew dancing to a rap tune. Next, we have interviews with the lead characters in the film. And, finally, we get a theatrical trailer.
Iñárritu’s latest movie, “Biutiful” is not a cheerful movie by any means. If you liked “Babel” and ’21 Grams,” then chances are you will probably enjoy “Biutiful.” The film is a long, grim journey that offers no hope for its characters. Featuring silky-smooth cinematography and top-notch performances, “Biutiful” shows why Javier Bardem is one of the top-rated actors of the present generation. Indeed, Bardem’s multifaceted performance is alone worth the price of admission.