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London Film Festival Review: Biutiful

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AlejandroIñárritu was on the receiving end of his first critical slapping for Babel, a film whose story spanned the globe but only returned with the conclusion that everyone was connected through abject misery. With his trademark non-chronological narrative stretched to breaking point by accusations of pretentiousness and relationship with regular screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga shattered by an authorship dispute over the film 21 Grams, Iñárritu announced that he was to return to Spanish-language filmmaking, directing his first linear narrative with Javier Bardem in the lead role. Biutiful, deploying the 'childish misspellings bring laughter in hard times' schtick that previously made audiences feel sick in the no less orthographically challenged Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness, marks Iñárritu's return to low-key Spanish drama and shot at redemption.

Alejandro Iñárritu was on the receiving end of his first critical slapping for Babel, a film whose story spanned the globe but only returned with the conclusion that everyone was connected through abject misery. With his trademark non-chronological narrative stretched to breaking point by accusations of pretentiousness and relationship with regular screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga shattered by an authorship dispute over the film 21 Grams, Iñárritu announced that he was to return to Spanish-language filmmaking, directing his first linear narrative with Javier Bardem in the lead role. Biutiful, deploying the 'childish misspellings bring laughter in hard times' schtick that previously made audiences feel sick in the no less orthographically challenged Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness, marks Iñárritu's return to low-key Spanish drama and shot at redemption.{{page_break}}

What hasn't changed is his continuing elevation of misery as the binding human experience. Bardem plays Uxbal, a black-market trader in the Barcelona black market who takes backhanders from African street dealers and organises a factory of Chinese immigrants manufacturing knock-off designer handbags. He uses the money to barely keep his two children fed and in school, having separated from their bi-polar mother Marambra and now living out of a squalid flat. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Uxbal sets out to reconcile with Maramba raise enough money for his children to lead a reasonable life after his death, but finds the consequences of his criminal actions and neglect pushing him ever ever deeper into trouble.

Biutiful's Barcelona is a distant shout from from the romanticised Catalan city of festivals and culture that the tourist board likes to see on our screens: anyone arriving late at the film could easily confuse Uxbal's neighbourhood for one of the rougher areas of Mexico City. Iñárritu emphasizes the poverty and filth of life in the backstreets by shooting on grainy film stock, filtered through luridly coloured lenses. As Uxbal's health deteriorates, the lighting seems to progressively fade as his grip on life weakens and hope of providing a better future for his children goes with it. In the meantime, he finds himself thrown in jail and forced to rely for several days on the potentially abusive Maramba for childcare, shortly prior to discovering she has been having an affair with his brother; has to accept money from a shopping mall development to dig up the site of his beloved father's grave and have him cremated; then later becomes indirectly responsible for a mass manslaughter that kills a young mother who is friend to his daughter. Never mind redemption, Biutiful might just as easily be Iñárritu's bid to consolidate himself as the world's least welcome party guest.

The ever more ridiculous depths of wretchedness that Iñárritu plunges his characters into is made only more difficult to endure by the lack of storytelling direction. Uxbal is incomprehensibly given the power to see the dead and assist them in passing peacefully into the afterlife. (He gets employed for this purpose early on). Maybe it was Iñárritu's attempt to mirror the character's difficult transition towards his own demise, but throwing a supernatural element into a film otherwise firmly grounded in gritty realism only ends up causing confusion and undermining the drama. Similarly frustrating is how Uxbal's relationship with the Chinese immigrants takes up a significant amount of the prolonged running time, yet aside from being the cause of yet more unhappiness, scarcely goes anywhere or has any noticeable impact on the central storyline. It is important that we see the unpleasant and risky work he is forced into for little reward, while his progressive attitude towards giving the workers better living conditions at least establishes some trace of decency for the character, but the time dedicated to a subplot yielding virtually no reward is indulgence of the most unjustifiable variety.

The story generally progresses at a deathly rate anyway, apart from a short street chase following a police clampdown on the African dealers and a drunken nightclub outing energised by strobe lighting and loud music. There's nothing wrong with slow films, but the audience has to remain convinced that every second is justified. A fast-paced film can get away with a certain amount of superfluousness (few action scenes add much to narrative or character development) because the story and visuals move so quickly that anything unnecessary is easy to overlook. For a two and a half hour film about a dying man suffering increasing levels of indignity as he trawls grimy city slums, any hint of dallying quickly turns to viewer antipathy.

If Iñárritu is to escape an even more violent critical mauling for this film than his previous effort, it will all be down to Javier Bardem. A friend suggested after the film that Bardem's Oscar eligibility was dependant on the awfulness of his hair and here he's rocking an untamed mullet, greying stubble and drug dealer sideburns. In other words, he's a shoo-in. This is an almighty performance, single-handedly imbuing the meandering story with immense gravity and even finding perverse admirability in this most downtrodden and morally tenuous of characters. When Uxbal takes out his stress on his undeserving children, it's Bardem who makes it believable that the source of his anger is really directed at his own inability to be a good father to them. When he argues violently with Maramba, Bardem tells us without words that the character's inexcusable actions stem not from being an inherently cruel man, but the knowledge that a little self-control on her part could have given his children a mother and saved them from an enormous amount of suffering.

For a film desperate to be considered alongside the likes of Ikiru in the pantheon of great human dramas but utterly lacking that film's insight and sincerity, confusing misery for meaning and an extensive running time for depth, Bardem is picking from the faintest scraps of meaning but sells them with such conviction that at times it almost seems there might be a decent film lurking somewhere amidst the drudgery. Unfortunately, Iñárritu's ongoing addiction to hollow melancholy makes Biutiful's writing no more credible than its spelling.


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Biutiful reviewed by Xander Markham

4.5

BELOW AVERAGE

Has some high points, but they soon give way to glaring faults. Not the worst, but difficult to recommend.
How we score:  The Flixist reviews guide

 
 
 

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Xander Markham
Xander MarkhamAssociate Editor   gamer profile

Living just outside London, I represent Flixist’s entire UK branch. My film obsession manifested itself during a childhood spent watching Bond movies, Italian Westerns and all things samurai. I... more + disclosures


 



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