Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, Biutiful, has been given an extra boost during this year’s awards season, including a surprise Academy Award nomination for Javier Bardem in the Best Actor category. It’s essentially a two and a half hour journey into hell, a film which opens its first act with the lead character getting diagnosed with terminal cancer and then has no wear to go but further down into the depths of human despair.
The film is centred around Bardem who plays Uxbal, a mysterious underworld figure, a man who is on the cusp of death and finds himself able to connect between reality and the afterlife. He traverses the lonely streets of Barcelona where he is bothered by the ghost and ghouls which swirl the back streets and grim nights. Uxbal’s psychic abilities enable him to hear their final truths and confessions which he then pawns to the mourning families.
An odd shift for Iñárritu who, although plays with the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief in his previous movies, is usually grounded in the social realism of the location his films are set in. Here he touches on something that approaches magical realism and is a much more spiritual and deeply affecting work. This is also another change from his usual spiel of intertwining narrative threads, this is focused on one man and his trials and tribulations, essentially its an existential character study.
For that to work and for that idea to work for two and a half hours, you need a strong constant actor who can hold the film together and hold your attention for that amount of time. Javier Bardem does it extraordinarily, it is a stupendous performance, very deserving of all awards nominations he’s got and is certainly one of the best performances of the year. You can tell from very little that this is a man who is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, his face is enigmatic and wistful, he often looks like a man whose world is about to collapse around him.
Without Bardem the film would be not at all what it was, he is the glue who is holding the film together because without his strong acting ability the film would completely fall apart. Iñárritu is a talented guy but he hasn’t made a truly great film since his first effort Amores Perros, the likes of 21 Grams and Babel were huge Oscar contenders but always had a knowing sensibility for their portentousness. This isn’t much different, Inarritu knows he’s dealing with big ideas and themes and they are knowingly woven into the screenplay.
The result of this is that the film as it continues to get bogged down in its own self importance, Inarritu is dealing with weighty themes of mortality and the human condition and the more it goes on the more and more pompous the film becomes. The pace is incredibly meandering and slow, slowness isn’t usually a bad thing but here it becomes fairly tortuous. It is the same kind of pretentious grandstanding that really made Babel unbearable
What makes it more watchable is a spectacular visual palette, the grimness of the location shooting on Barcelona becomes oddly beautiful. I really love the grubby, handheld visual style that the film adopts, it only works for some films but when done right there is no style more urgent and involving than that. There are also some very profound moments of visual poetry, one in particular is a scene in a snowy wood which is absolutely beautiful to look at.
In the end the film is a mixed bag, there are parts of it that work and there are parts that don’t. But holding it together is a spectacular central performance by Bardem who manages to pull you through a tough ride and some moments which will have you raising your eyebrows. It is heavy going, like most Inarritu’s stuff. Its a tough ride and after this I think he may have exhausted this thematic sense of importance. It’s good, but its time to lighten up.
The film is beautifully photographed and incredibly effective. Holding it all together is a brilliant central performance by Javier Bardem.