(Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, 2010)
Javier Bardem is extraordinary, as usual. As Uxbal, a terminally ill single father mixed up in the frequently criminal exploitation of illegal immigrants in Barcelona, he has a lot to convey. His ex-wife is a bipolar party girl with substance issues who is sleeping with his wheeler-dealer brother and cannot be trusted with their two children. He is a necromancer, able to speak to the dead in the brief instant after they have passed, and is abused by people who think this is a con and troubled by the visions this power induces. He has problems with the African immigrants he supplies with pirate DVDs and fake designer bags, but also with the Chinese suppliers of this merchandise and the policeman he pays to turn a blind eye. And, of course, he is dying of cancer.
This is the films problem: everything is too much. Inarittu piles on the story strands, each of them heavy and serious, relevant and soulful, and as the film strains harder and harder for profundity it becomes suffocatingly intense. Inarittu's style doesn't help; that immersively jittery camera and a visceral, almost painful sound mix gives the viewer little space in the film as the characters pain and the grimness of the milieu press on you. He cannot resist adding more detail, either, filling in the characters of a Senegalese couple involved with Uxbal and giving a few scenes to the gay affair between the married Chinese boss and his Lieutenant.
Worse is that, as in previous films Babel and 21 Grams his conclusions are so trite and disappointing. From a film that takes itself so immensely seriously, I would expect more insight and ambiguity. At least Inarittu's gifts as a visual director are still sharp. Biutiful is filled with unexpected moments of startling beauty and striking images : mainly of Barcelona's urban sprawl in Winter, and for all it's other flaws, is always engrossing. This is chiefly down to Bardem, reasserting himself as both a great, magnetic movie star and an incredible actor. He is moving, believable, always human. All that in a mullet and tracksuit.