By now, you should know what you’re getting yourself into when you step foot into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s world. You’re going to fall deep into the dark realms of love and be exposed to the best, and worst, of what the human condition has to offer.
We got it brilliantly, immediately, with his debut Amores Perros, followed by his convoluted, gut-wrenching 21 Grams, and most recently with his flawless Babel. Biutiful explores those same themes with the level of grittiness Iñárritu has grown accustomed to.
I think it’s safe to assume that most of you know as little as I did about this film walking into it. And it should stay that way. Exposing the tricks of a mediocre film is a bummer, but detailing the plot elements of a great film is irreprehensible. It is fair to say that in Biutiful, a never better (and Oscar nominated) Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a man struggling to do what’s right, based on the rules he’s set for himself.
Life for Uxbal isn’t easy, and we assume it never has been. He isn’t struggling to make ends meet, he’s struggling to get rice to feed his kids. He’s struggling to make sense of his wife’s manic episodes. He’s struggling with his demons, his desires, and his fate.
He combats his struggles, as many film characters do, by seeking illegal means. But we never lend a disapproving eye to Uxbal, we never feel ashamed for him. We want him to live, we want him to be.
And that is tough to do. Some of my favorite types of movie characters are ones struggling with moral redemption. The bad guys trying to make good. The tricky part is, we see this all the time, and it mostly fails. Whether it comes off as corny or forced, rarely does it feel real. Iñárritu never seems to have that problem with his characters; they are always fleshed out and tested in a way that is completely free of artifice.
As Uxbal, Javier Bardem gives yet another perfect performance in his ever-evolving career. My fascination for Bardem started, as it did for most Americans, with his Oscar-worthy turn as Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls. Bardem is capable, like all great actors are, of saying more with his eyebrows than with a three page monologue. We’ve seen him as remorseful (The Sea Inside) as dark (No Country for Old Men) and as charming (Vicky Christina Barcelona), but I can’t think of the last time I saw him as desperate.
He gives Uxbal a level of desperation that is, at times, excruciating to watch. There’s a scene in Biutifil, which may in fact be the best scene in the film, in which Bardem argues with his wife. As the argument quickly becomes more heated, the camera slowly pans away. Like a silent child weeping in the hallway, we can’t watch, we can only listen. If I was a voting member of the Academy Awards, I would vote for Bardem in this year’s Best Actor race.
Iñárritu has a way of making the catharses of his films stick with you. You try to listen to music on the drive home, but you find that it’s distracting. You try to carry on a conversation with your loved one, but your mind is absent. You try to fall asleep, but you’re stuck awake.
Stepping into Iñárritu’s beautiful dark twisted fantasies may not always be easy, but it’s always damn well worth it. A-