To say that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s forthcoming Birdman is a change in direction is something of an understatement. Featuring a diverse range of actors including Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Norton and Naomi Watts, it is being billed as a comedy-drama superhero movie, which is surprising given that the Mexican director’s previous four films have been ultra-serious affairs primarily concerned with the subject of death. The first three of those – Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel – have been collectively referred to as ‘The Death Trilogy’, each one a weighty but tonally-different examination of mortality. Biutiful, which stars Javier Bardem as a father in Barcelona with terminal prostate cancer, could easily fit within that earlier series in terms of subject matter, although for the first time here the director concentrates on a single story as opposed to multiple strands that fit within an overall narrative framework. Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu’s screenwriter for those first three films, wanted more credit for his work; the pair fell out as Babel hit Cannes in 2006, so the director collaborated with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone on this story. The narrower focus arguably makes for Iñárritu’s heaviest film to date: a tough watch at times, bleak in the extreme, but in my opinion one of the very best from the past ten years by any filmmaker.
This is the second film in a row I’ve watched that (a) stars Bardem and (b) is set in Barcelona, fact fans. Here he plays Uxbal, a man who lives in a shabby apartment in one of Barcelona’s poorer districts with his young children Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella). He is separated from his unfaithful alcoholic wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), who suffers from bipolar disorder, and in order to provide for his family he is involved in a variety of illegal black market activities: one involves a group of illegal immigrant Chinese women who produce fake designer goods which are sold by African street traders, another centres around the provision of cheap foreign labour for work on a construction site. He also earns money as a medium, communicating with the recently-dead at wakes and funerals before passing on messages to grieving family members.
When he receives his diagnosis from a barely-sympathetic doctor, Uxbal is told he only has a few months at most to live, and must plan accordingly for the future of his children. He tries to reconcile with Marambra but her illnesses affect her suitability as a parent, so instead he turns to Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the wife of a Senegalese street trader and friend of Uxbal’s named Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), who agrees to look after Ana and Mateo after Uxbal’s impending death.
Some dismissed Biutiful on its release for being too bleak, but that ignores too readily the fact that this tale, of migrant workers and inner-city European poverty, is the result of three writers commendably trying to grapple with the problems faced by a large section of our society as it stands today (albeit an examination that must adhere to certain rules and necessities associated with melodrama). It is also short-sighted to disregard the movie simply because it deals with death; yes, it is a depressing subject, but the way in which Biutiful examines the end of life – be it through tragic accidents, the botched disposal of corpses, dead children in limbo, cultural belief systems, the sale of graves, the grief of parents, intergenerational reunion or the actual act of dying – is often imaginative, moving and thought-provoking.
While it’s not surprising that many people were put off, scattered among the downbeat and often upsetting scenes are some truly beautiful moments (hence the title, although both of Uxbal’s children also use the word at different points). In two early mealtime scenes, for example, we see Bardem’s character lose his temper with his son and his wife; when a later scene shows the foursome enjoying a happy meal together, we see a brief glimpse of harmonious family life over shared tubs of melting ice cream which becomes far more powerful than it ever ought to be. We follow Uxbal as he loses himself in a delirious, narcotic, boozy haze in a club, and on another occasion he is stopped in his tracks by the sight of a flock of starlings from an overpass. (Interestingly, there is a shift here from a spherical format to an anamorphic one, which is supposed to signify that Uxbal has accepted his fate.) These are the moments in-between that make life worth living, but unfortunately for Uxbal they are rare, fleeting and made all the more poignant by the fact his time is running out.
Uxbal’s life in inner-city Barcelona is fairly unremarkable except for his underground criminal activities; otherwise he walks his kids to school, picks them up from the babysitter, prepares their meals and tucks them in at night. He appears to be a parent that is trying hard to bring the two children up well, with good manners; he has strong emotional ties to Mateo and Ana, and indeed most of the other characters in the film, including Marambra and the illegal workers he deals with. In short he is, at heart, a good man, but he also has a short fuse and he makes bad decisions that have serious repercussions; his involvement in a terrible tragedy that occurs during the film rightly haunts him until the very end.
When that end comes, the skill with which Iñárritu films Uxbal’s passing into what is apparently the afterlife is, quite simply, breathtaking. It is one of the most moving, poetic scenes I have seen in recent years, and though he is on screen for a mere two minutes in the prologue and epilogue, Nasser Saleh leaves a lasting impression here as Uxbal’s dead father. The transition from squalid bedsit apartment to a snow-covered forest includes some really impressive sound design and editing, and it makes for a striking end to the movie.
Uxbal is a fascinating character, and Bardem’s Oscar-nominated performance is engrossing (though, it should be stated, not to the point that the other characters end up on the periphery). Bardem is often filmed close-up, with Iñárritu opting for a hand-held camera once again, and the actor’s long, haunted face speaks volumes about the character’s past struggles. With his greasy hair, week-old stubble and the bags under his heavy eyes Uxbal looks permanently shattered, even after he decides to stop chemotherapy on the advice of fellow medium Bea (Ana Wagener). The actor is totally convincing and this is a career highlight for Bardem which will be difficult to match in the future, even taking into account his impressive performances in Before Night Falls and No Country For Old Men.
The support – from actors largely unknown outside of the Iberian peninsula – is also very good. Bouchaib and Estrella are convincing as the two children and Álvarez also stands out as the troubled ex-wife. It is also worth mentioning Taisheng Chen and Jin Luo, who play a pair of gay men involved in the people trafficking and counterfeit goods businesses, although unfortunately their interesting story is sadly under-developed. Eduard Fernández also shines as Uxbal’s untrustworthy brother Tito.
Despite the magic realism in the film, Iñárritu and regular cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto opt for a naturalistic look, which ensures those supernatural elements fit well with what is – for the main part – a kitchen sink drama. (Having produced stellar work on the four Iñárritu films to date as well as Argo, The Wolf Of Wall Street, 8 Mile and – most notably – Brokeback Mountain, Prieto’s reputation as a fine cinematographer is secure.) As Prieto told the ASC: ‘His ability to see and hear the dead is part of his reality, so we didn’t want to depict that differently in terms of the visuals. The metaphysical is part of his everyday life, so I did not emphasize it through special lighting or camera gags for these moments.’ There are flashes of colour, but overall Barcelona looks cold and blue-grey here. Iñárritu chooses some interesting locations, and isn’t interested in painting the city as a touristic paradise; Uxbal looks out of the window at the Sagrada Familia at one point, but he’s in a hospital and receives his bad news shortly thereafter. Aside from that brief glimpse there’s no Gaudi architecture, no packed beaches and no Nou Camp to see here; instead the lens is directed toward the peeling paint on the walls of dimly-lit sweatshops and slum houses, or on streets filled with non-descript takeaway joints and bars.
When Amores Perros was released to near-universal acclaim, it was incorrectly suggested in some corners of the press that Iñárritu was Mexico’s answer to Quentin Tarantino, a lazy comparison that did neither filmmaker justice. Four weighty, fairly complex and emotionally-draining films later, that suggestion seems ludicrous. Biutiful will not silence the critics who believe the director relies on the pile-up of one depressing event on top of another in order to elicit an emotional response from the viewer, or those that feel his grasp of the politics of globalization is slight, but both times I’ve watched this film I’ve felt both moved and impressed by the memorable scenes, the acting, the narrative, the cinematography and the sound design. In my opinion Biutiful is the kind of film that will stay with most viewers long after the credits have finished, and I cannot understand how any critic could possibly dismiss this work simply because it made them feel sad. It is grim and intense, but magnificently so.
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring: Javier Bardem, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Maricel Álvarez
Running Time: 141 minutes