Biutiful is a discomforting, almost painfully intimate and gritty study of a terminally ill psychic named Uxbal, played in an Oscar-nominated role by Javier Bardem. If you’re at all familiar with the work of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), you know that’s his desired effect. But just like all his movies, Biutiful remains fascinating and, dare I say, beautiful in its own haunting way.
Uxbal uses his gift of communicating with the recently deceased to supplement his income. This goes against the advice of his mentor, but he doesn’t have much choice given the demands of his bipolar wife and his costly hospital visits for cancer treatment.
While the film’s supernatural elements offer a far more ambitious exploration of the afterlife than Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, Inarritu seems less interested in Uxbal’s next phase than the one he’ll soon leave behind. The majority of the film deals with Uxbal working to assure the safety of his two children while finding something for them to remember him by. Uxbal’s own father left when he was too young to understand what was going on.
A subplot involving Uxbal’s work as a middle-man for the black market of Chinese laborers adds little more than shocking imagery and a slightly bloated runtime. Time would have been better spent focusing on familial relationships and expanding upon the relationship between Uxbal and his brother, which feels tacked on near the film’s conclusion.
Aside from a surreal strip club sequence that plays like something out of a Gaspar Noe film, Inarritu’s longtime cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto supplies the same down and dirty camera work we saw in Amores Perros. Strictly documentarian in style, Prieto uses exclusively handheld cameras and often allows his microphones to pick up the characters’ intense breathing during extreme close-ups.
This is the first of Inarritu’s films to deviate from his usual intersecting storylines and focus on one linear narrative, and it takes a brilliant performance for an audience to withstand watching a central character suffer for two and a half hours. Bardem’s performance represents physical acting at its finest. We practically feel his pain as he struggles to stand while releasing a stream of neon-red piss into the toilet.
Biutiful is just as morosity-drenched as Inarritu’s other features, but it differs in the way its ending offers a lot of hope. So even if this dog isn’t learning any new tricks, he’s at least adding new wrinkles to the ones he already knows. But the fact that Oscar recognized Biutiful as one of its top foreign language films of the year is proof enough that Inarritu is skating by purely on reputation at this point in his career.
Biutiful is a good film, but it isn’t even the best “Mexican” film I’ve seen this year. That title belongs to the deeply affecting cannibal drama We Are What We Are (watch trailer below). But as an aside, what exactly makes Biutiful, a film shot in Barcelona using Spanish actors, “Mexican” in the first place? Simply the fact that Mexico is the director’s home country and the majority of its investors are Mexicans? I suppose.