Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Watching Alejandro González Iñárritu’s emotion-drenched Biutiful soon after Clint Eastwood’s stillborn Hereafter, I kept noting surface similarities between the two – and thinking about what made Biutiful succeed where Hereafter failed.

Eastwood's film earns its few moving moments by playing out the sadness of premature death – a heartstring that’s easily plucked. Biutiful strums that same note, but only as part of a plaintive refrain about the beauty and pain in everyday life and the sadness of having to leave it. Hereafter is packed with painfully expository speeches, while Biutiful shows us what’s happening rather than trying to tell us what to think about it. (A good example is the drawing that gives the movie its name, a bright painting by the daughter of the main character, Uxbal, on which she wrote, apparently practicing her English: “The picnic was biutiful.” We see this poignant artifact of a rare happy family outing in passing, as we would if we were standing in Uxbal’s kitchen and scanning the walls. In Eastwood’s movie, in contrast, the camera zooms in on a photo in George’s apartment so the woman he has invited in can ask him about it, leading to a clunky speech.)

Perhaps most importantly, both Matt Damon’s George in Hereafter and Biutiful’s Uxbal (Javier Bardem) talk to the dead, and both are reluctantly convinced to practice their psychic skills by desperate mourners – and by their need for cash. But Hereafter makes that one simple notion the core of its story, flogging it nearly to death, while Uxbal’s communion with the dead is just one small part of a much more compelling narrative.

The thread that connects a string of crystalline moments in Biutiful is Uxbal’s headlong race to come to terms with his own imminent death while providing some measure of security for the children he must leave behind. Uxbal, who lives and works in hardscrabble, majority-immigrant parts of Barcelona that Bardem’s character never showed those glossy young tourists in Vicky Cristina Barcelona,
is a realistically complex man: a sad-eyed hustler, a strict but loving father, and a loyal friend and former husband.

As the story begins, he learns that he has metastasized prostate cancer. As he wastes away physically over the course of the movie, the sadness of the body’s inevitable decline registers all the more intensely, as it did in Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside, because of the vitality and intensity Bardem brings to the role – not to mention the soulful power of those deep-dish dark eyes and that Easter Island profile.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, 25th Hour, Brokeback Mountain) finds the beauty in impoverished settings and Uxbal’s increasingly gaunt face without romanticizing too much, though the harshness may be softened a bit too much in Uxbal’s Camille-like death scene. And right up to the end, Uxbal makes the most of the life he has left, getting chemo and seeing a curandera, trying to square things with his unstable but loveable ex (Maricel Alvarez, an unconventional beauty with a nose to match her costar’s), and doing whatever he can to add to the wad of cash he stashes in his bedroom.

Thankfully, González Iñárritu doesn’t fall back on the overlapping stories and fragmented timelines that felt revelatory when he and writer Guillermo Arriaga used them in Amores Perros, but tiresome by their third collaboration, Babel (though, to be fair, they might not have if so many other filmmakers hadn’t jumped on the idea.) This time around, the director and his co-screenwriters, Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, simply follow Uxbal around enough to give us a sense of what’s happening on some of the side streets he’s rushing through. Besides Uxbal’s own physically deteriorating but psychologically stable home, we glimpse the family lives of a Senegalese street vendor and his wife, a group of undocumented Chinese pieceworkers, and the Chinese manager of the factory where the undocumented pieceworkers labor and live, camped out on the floor of an unheated basement room.

Not all of this movie’s many tangents work – the Chinese workers, in particular, feel more like symbolic victims than actual people. But Biutiful serves up enough pungent little slices of life to make up for its misfires.

Written for TimeOFF

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