Alejandro González Iñárritu returns to the screen with this year’s Biutiful (B), a word the director understands better than most. Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel are all beautiful films that tell stories of pain and loss. Beauty, for Iñárritu, is what is left when the pain is over; his version of the word (its difference summed up in the title’s creative spelling) implies the bad with the good, the elements of suffering that make a world more beautiful by contrast. All of Iñárritu’s films to date are composite narratives that involve overlapping stories marked by tragedy. It comes as no surprise that these first three films are considered to be Iñárritu’s Death Trilogy (Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Last Days, and Elephant have also earned this macabre designation).
The movies are incomparably dark and morose, but the Mexican director is a master of artfully mixing sweet with sour, a restorative spoonful delivered in the final moments of the films. In 21 Grams, it’s the news that new life somehow prevails in spite of an overwhelming atmosphere of grief and addiction. In Babel, it’s the achingly poignant scenes where Richard (Brad Pitt) helps his injured wife (Cate Blanchett) use the bathroom, and Yasujiro (KÅï¿½ji Yakusho) clothes his daughter Chieko’s (Rinko Kikuchi) exposed body. Both scenes show the beauty in vulnerability and portray the first signs of recovery in relationships that were destroyed by grief.
B marks the first time Iñárritu focuses his lens on a single character and narrative, though it won’t be any less challenging to puzzle out then his previous films. Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Vicky Christina Barcelona) stars as Uxbal, a lost soul who, diagnosed with terminal cancer, attempts to find love and make provisions for his children before death comes to call. Bardem returns to Barcelona for B, a far cry from the warm and vibrant city Woody Allen made love to with his camera.
Iñárritu’s Barcelona is cold and crime-ridden, the site of Uxbal’s illegal trade and turmoil and, from how it appears in the film’s trailer, a spiritual borderland. Iñárritu’s vision falls in line with other Spanish directors, such as Pedro Almodóvar, that seem particulalry fascinated with transrealities (see Volver). The trailer is an enigmatic collage of scenes that promises darkness and light but reveals little about the narrative itself. The official Spanish-language trailer for B uses the same scenes but with a voice-over track that takes the enigma a step further, likening the whole narrative to the experience of a storm inside oneself, and the calm on the other side. Viewers should trust Iñárritu’s artistry and open themselves up to the existential journey the director is sure to take them on.
Bardem is as worthy a candidate for the B designation as the film he stars in. The Spanish actor has dragged the depths of the soul (The Sea Inside) and played a soulless killer (No Country) to award-worthy heights. Bardem’s recent Academy win (Best Supporting Actor, 2008) and his Best Actor nod for 2000’s Before Night Falls may mean the Academy will look somewhere else to bestow the honour. However, his obvious calibre as an actor will always warrant the notice, and help any film he graces to achieve its farthest flung goals. Cannes thought as much (Best Actor, 2010). Not that Iñárritu needs the help.
Iñárritu directs his actors in exacting roles subject to “storms” of emotion and punishment, but the list of top actors who want to work with the director continues to grow. Iñárritu’s first full-length feature, the Spanish-language Amores Perros, made himself and actor Gael Garcia Bernal cinematic somebodies, and received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. 2003’s 21 Grams attracted the likes of Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, and Benicio Del Toro, and a pre-Benjamin Button Pitt and Blanchett joined Bernal for 2006’s Babel. These films mark the director’s foray, first, into English-language, then poly-linguistic stoytelling. Despite polarized criticism, the amazingly layered Babel received Best Picture and Best Director Academy Award Nominations, but no cigar.
B was made as part of a $100 million deal with Alphonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and a host of American studios. However, Inarritu’s latest Spanish-language film won’t be competing against other American-made and English-language films for Best Picture. Mexico has already put B forward as its entry for the Academy’s Best Foreign Language Film category. The challenging film will likely divide critics as its predecessor did, but B‘s participation in this more humble category will increase its chances of bringing home gold.
Update: The prize went to Denmark, In a Better World.