February 10, 2012

Friday Review: Biutiful

Is it possible to make a movie that is technically perfect in terms of film making and anchored by a superb lead performance that is, nonetheless, hollow and pointless? I wouldn't have thought so, but Biutiful makes a pretty good case.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful is built around a brilliant performance by Javier Bardem as Uxbal, who receives news that he's suffering from advanced prostate cancer and has, at beast, a few months to live. To call Uxbal's life “complicated” is to undersell the bad hand Iñárritu deals him. For a living, Uxbal plays some kind of middleman role in a criminal enterprise that exploits (presumably illegal) immigrants in Barcelona for both the supply (Chinese) and distribution (African) of counterfeit goods. The closest thing to a legitimate job Uxbal has is when he takes money from those who have recently had a loved one die in order to see if they are at peace.

That's right. Uxbal talks to the dead. Given the rest of his criminal life, one would think that would be a scam. But Iñárritu makes it clear that Uxbal really does talk to dead people. So much for realism.

Uxbal has two children, the younger of whom apparently likes to start fires. Their mother, his estranged wife, is nuts, an addict of some persuasion, and a prostitute. Did I mention that she hooks up with Uxbal's brother (who is also part of the illegal immigrant business)?

Into such difficult circumstances, Uxbal's diagnosis makes barely a ripple, except to provide the film's ticking clock. Honestly, aside from one scene of chemo and the general deterioration of Uxbal's health (multiple scenes of Bardem pissing blood!), the cancer thing is hardly the life altering event it would be to most people.

So, the cancer diagnosis becomes just one of the many bad things that happen to Uxbal over the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time. There's a botched reconciliation with the crazy hooker wife. Two dozen of his Chinese immigrants are killed (due to his cheapness, essentially). And, of course, he dies.

Even Biutiful’s admirers admit to its bleakness and the misery that seems to infuse every scene. So what, then exactly, is Iñárritu trying to say? What does he bring to the conversation about the world that others haven’t? Damned if I can tell.

I’ve seen some commenters argue that those who dislike the film simply just can’t handle the reality of it, can’t deal with the fact that it shows the ugly side of life. I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, as I mentioned above, Uxbal talks to dead people. That ain’t real life, people, OK? Any film that aims for gritty realism probably should leave the magical touches for others. For another thing, if you need to watch a fictional movie to be reminded of how much the world sucks for vast swaths of people out there, you’re the one who’s being willfully ignorant. I don’t blame Iñárritu for showing me misery – it confirms what I see in my daily life (certainly in my daily work) – I blame him for not saying anything interesting about it.

In his positive review, Roger Ebert claims that Uxbal is a “good man” trying to come to terms with all this. I don’t see it. Yes, Uxbal loves his kids, but he doesn’t do very well by them.* He never actually tells them about his impending death and his way of securing their future is to give each some mystical doodad that’s supposed to “protect” them. By the end of the film, the kids are left to a world without a father, with a mother who is at best neglectful and at worst destructive, and in the care of an immigrant woman who, while she appears to be a good loving person, is not exactly in a secure situation herself. If that’s what love gets you, that’s not saying much. I fail to see anything else Uxbal does that demonstrates a “good” man trapped in a bad situation. And there are two dozen dead Chinese who probably can’t see it, either.

Given all that, I’m a bit puzzled at Ebert’s reference to Ikiru, the Kurosawa masterpiece. Aside from both being about dying men, those men couldn’t be more different. Uxbal is a criminal who preys on others to make a living. Ikiru’s Kanji is a midlevel bureaucrat who is unsure if his work has any meaning. Not only does Kanji take obvious steps to do good, we see (via a brilliant 45-minute coda) how the world appreciates the work he did once he is dead. No dead people talking in Ikiru either, which has to count for something.

In the end, the closest Iñárritu appears to wander near a point is to give in to some nondescript woo-based kind of “hope.” As A.O Scott in the New York Times so devastatingly put it:
Mr. González Iñárritu does not have the stomach for the stringent moral and spiritual vision of authentically (or even experimentally) religious filmmakers like Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson or the Dardenne brothers. Instead he traffics in a vague theology of uplift, wherein the road to an entirely abstract heaven is paved with noble instincts.

The tension between this director’s methods and his intentions — between his exacting, sometimes amazing craft and his resolutely banal ideas — may ultimately be a problem of audience and genre. ‘Biutiful,’ like ‘Babel,’ looks more daring and more difficult than it is. But if Mr. González Iñárritu were, let’s say, to adapt a novel by Nicholas Sparks, whose views on love and morality are not ultimately all that different from his, the result might be a satisfying and surprising synthesis of styles: a feel-bad art film with an uplifting message for everyone. ‘Biutiful,’ come to think of it, is almost that, but not entirely in a good way.
Ouch. Now that is biutiful.

* Not to go all Godwin, but Goebbels loved his children in Downfall, too, but you can see where that led.

The Details

Released 2010
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, et. al.

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