Monday, 7 February 2011


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu exploded onto the art house scene with Amores Perros. A vital, thrilling series of interlocking, harsh, nasty stories, it lit the proverbial fire beneath Mexican cinema, leading the charge for the renaissance it enjoys today. Unfortunately, his latest, Biutiful, doesn't so much burst into life as seep slowly down the screen like treacle. It's less schematic than his previous effort, Babel, but is so intent on rubbing our faces in spiritual and physical miserablism that it is by turns numbing, irritating and farcical.

Someone should tell Inarritu that many of the best dramas are flecked with just as much compassionate humour as despair. Well, humour's definitely what's missing from Biutiful, although trying to elicit laughs from the ludicrous number of torments piled on Javier Bardem would certainly be difficult. It attempts to make the audience suffer vicariously as its protagonist does - but unlike Amores Perros, or indeed 21 Grams, the sheer magnitude of the suffering means the film feels oddly artificial.

Bardem's Uxbal is dying. Not just physically (from cancer, he is informed at the outset), but spiritually, too. By turns a devoted father to his two children and a lowly, underworld figure in a strikingly seedy, grubby Barcelona (one of the film's successes is how it subverts the popular image of the city), he is also experiencing a crisis of faith. Involved in local drug dealing, he also has connections to a Chinese immigrant sweatshop. His bipolar ex-wife, Marambra (an excellent Maricel Alvarez) is also an unpredictable factor in his life. Can he juggle all his responsibilities as he prepares to meet his maker?

Well, it's a lot of emotional baggage. So much so that even one of Thomas Hardy's classic tragic heroes may have asked someone else to help shoulder the burden. But Inarritu's biggest failing is that none of the misery amounts to anything on an emotional level. Instead, he makes the fatal mistake of assuming that overloading the screen with tragedy will make his film inherently tragic. Sorry, Alejandro, it doesn't work, and attempts at faux spiritualism (Uxbal's ill-defined abilities as a medium; birds flying across a vast expanse of blue sky) only serve to make it more trite.

Any and all of the film's limited success can be attributed directly to Bardem. It's to Inarritu's and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's credit that they choose to make the most of this commanding actor's craggy features in extreme close-up throughout, allowing Bardem to deploy his thousand yard stare to more thoughtful and distressing effect. But despite his best efforts, the performance is quashed by Inarritu's overbearing, over-achieving direction, which, in its attempt at profundity, instead has the opposite effect of dumbing everything down.


  1. I enjoyed this review, very informative and well written!

    I have only seen Babel of Inarritu's work, but I definitely will de seeing his two previous films soon as well, not sure about Biutiful does sound rather depressing.

  2. Thanks for your kind comments Jack! I really appreciate the feedback.
    This film was a tricky one because I've got no problems with depressing films but they have to be nuanced - Biutiful is the very opposite of nuanced!