Reviewed at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Beneath all the swift camerawork and rapid editing, Alejandro González Iñárritu remains a sentimentalist. In his latest, “Biutiful,” a stylized paean to a devoted father in the slums of Barcelona, the Mexican director once again plays up the melodramatics — with mixed results.
Dedicated to his own father, and working for the first time without screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu abandons the interlocking narrative trickery of “Amores Perros” and “Babel” to tell a more or less straightforward story of a father’s battles with poverty, responsibility, guilt and redemption.
Javier Bardem is Uxbal, a dour man with two kids, a bipolar ex-wife, a talent for reading the minds of the recently deceased and a mid-level player in the black market. While the film sets itself up in the spiritual realm, with an evocative dreamlike sequence in a snowy forest landscape and the appearance of a young ghost boy, most of the movie finds Uxbal in the mean streets and cluttered apartments of the Spanish city’s poor neighborhoods.
Iñárritu recreates his own “Babel”-like mix of racial diversity, as Uxbal works for a Chinese warehouse owner, and acts as a liaison between their Chinese laborers and the Africans who sell their wares illegally on the street. (These supporting characters work to greater and lesser degrees; a gay relationship among the Chinese businessmen is forced; the Africans are conceived as all-too-innocent victims.)
Still, Iñárritu and crew keep the proceedings restlessly alive — Rodrigo Prieto’s camera and Stephen Mirrione’s editing rarely stand still — and the frame is always filled with the detritus of everyday life. And the director clearly knows how to direct an action sequence, with a heart-thumping scene involving police chasing down illegal merchants through crowded plazas, streets and sidewalks. If Iñárritu might toss off all the heavy psychologizing and social statements, he might be a solid pick for the next James Bond film.
But despite all the jittery cinematography, Bardem’s Uxbal isn’t as compelling as he needs to be. Though the actor is as burly and entrancing to gaze upon as ever, with his immense eyes and combination of brutish intensity and gentle sensitivity, the character remains vague and pretty much miserable the entire time. He has every right to be, given all of his circumstances, but the unending moroseness of the character and the film begins to outlast its welcome — and when the story reaches its gentle final epiphany, it’s all too forecasted.
True to his commercial roots, Iñárritu knows how to craft memorable images: the dead suspended near the ceiling, as black moths linger by, trying to escape their earthly roots; the surreal, flashing bodies and lights of a discotheque. But the sort of “biutiful” that Iñárritu is constantly reaching for — something deep, profound and spiritual — is often just outside his grasp.
“Biutiful” is currently without U.S. distribution.
[Photos: Javier Bardem in “Biutiful,” Focus Features, 2010]