- 2010 was, I think, a banner year for bleak and depressing movies. There was the disintigrating relationship drama of Blue Valentine, the hopeless dystopia of Never Let Me Go, and the loss-of-child mope-fest of Rabbit Hole. Well, here's one more '10 holdover, that is just now getting a wider theatrical expansion, and can likely be ranked right up there amongst the recent spate of artfully-shot-yet-soul-crushing cinema: BIUTIFUL. The Spanish-language film, already nominated for two Oscars (Best Foreign Film, and a leading actor nom for star Javier Bardem), is another one of those movies that's elegantly shot and wonderfully acted, but that makes you wonder what, if anything, was the point of all that melancholy. In fact, the film reminded me a lot of Blue Valentine, in that there were individual scenes and performances that I really enjoyed, that really resonated with me - but on the whole, I was left with a similar sort of empty feeling. I just didn't quite know what to take away from the film. That said, there is no denying the artful composition and inspired performances that color the film, and for that reason alone it's certainly worth taking a look at.
BIUTIFUL tells the story of Uxbal - played by Bardem - a character who, I'll be honest, is hard to get a read on. On one hand, Uxbal is a fairly devoted family man, with a deep devotion for his two young kids. Although they seem to be living in somewhat impovrished conditions, Uxbal makes sure that his kids are provided for - especially now that he is separated from their bipolar mother, who was deemed unfit to have custody. On the other hand, Uxbal is involved in some pretty shady stuff. He's a facilitator for illegal sweatshop workers, including children, who he puts to work in delapidated buildings that are clearly hazardous - unfit to house so many people. Uxbal deals drugs and other pirated goods. He pays off the police. He's a criminal, he's facilitating illegal child labor, and oddly, he seems pretty blase about it all. However, Uxbal begins to reexamine things when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Upon finding out that he has only weeks to live, Uxbal doggedly sets out to figure out his family's future, and also to use what time he has left to make peace with his own corrupted soul.
That is the basic premise of the film, but the movie forsakes a straightforward narrative, instead playing out like an intertwining, slice-of-life collection of scenes, that together form a larger tapestry. We are introduced to all manner of characters that touch Uxbal's life - his erratic and needy wife, his sleazy, womanizing brother, the pair of Chinese sweatshop owners with whom he does business, and many more. There are dozens of interweaving subplots. Will Uxbal reconcile with his wife? What will become of his children? Will the police catch up to Uxbal even as his cancer slowly eats away at him?
As directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful is a gorgeous-looking movie that is easy to get lost in. Even though the pace is slow, there is always something interesting to look at. Gritty shots of the Spanish slums are intermixed with more artsy scenes that are more symbolic than anything else. But Inarritu deftly creates a veritable collage of images and scenes that make this a very immersive, very atmospheric movie. It's strange, because there is that mix of stark realism with bits of "magical" realism / surreality. It mostly works, although I think that the movie leans heavily enough on its more earthbound storytelling style to the point where the more surreal moments feel a little big jarring. I'm thinking specifically of the film's bookended opening and closing scenes. Without spoiling anything, I found them interesting but also semi-disorienting - in such a way where I don't know that they had the impact that the filmmaker intended.
To that end, I just found it very difficult to get a read on Uxbal's character and/or character arc. Who is this guy, exactly? Perhaps it's because I've been so immersed in TV's Breaking Bad lately. On Breaking Bad, I've watched as this brilliant character arc plays out. as that show's protagonist grapples with the moral implications of activity that so negatively impacts the lives of others - even as he himself stares down his own mortality in the face of a dire cancer diagnosis. On Breaking Bad, we can see that inner conflict manifest on every line of Bryan Cranston's face. In Biutiful, I never quite got the how's and why's of Uxbal's descent into criminality. Even stranger is that, as the movie goes on, some truly awful, tragic stuff happens - stuff so traumatic and unthinkable that it would probably completely crush the spirit of most men. And yet, as the movie keeps throwing an almost comically tragic series of events at Uxbal, he is phased, but a lot less phased than you might imagine. Somehow, the arc of the movie seems to be Uxbal finding peace with himself and his situation -- even though there's not much in the film to indicate that he deserves it. The result is that you end up watching Biutiful more as a detached observer than as someone who is actively, emotionally invested in these characters. We're never quite sure what to make of Uxbal - let alone the film's many other morally bankrupt characters - and so by the time the movie ended, I felt cold and a bit confused.
Again, I couldn't help but admire numerous facets of the film. Javier Bardem does indeed turn in a memorable performance - even though it's hard to get a big-picture read on his character, he makes individual scenes shine with his ability to bring an unmatched intensity to his words and actions. The supporting cast is similarly great - in particular, Maricel Álvarez as Uxbal's wife Marambra. She delivers a totally manic, scene-stealing performance. And, as mentioned, the artistry of the direction, the composition of the scenes ... is often pretty breaktaking. At the end of the day though, a movie can only get so much credit for its aesthetics. There has to be some sort of lasting impact, some sort of exclamation point, some meaning that stays with you after the lights in the theater come on. I didn't quite get that with Buitiful.
My Grade: B