Biutifu: Innaritu’s Powerful Film Starring Javier Bardem

By Patrick Z. McGavin
Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition)–A contemporary ghost story about a man negotiating his public and private traumas against a modern backdrop of severe economic volatility and social disruption, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s fourth feature “Biutiful” is powered by Javier Bardem’s gripping, magnetic performance.
The actor’s gravitas and soulful immediacy elide over the film’s rough stretches and occasionally mannered storytelling.
This is Inarritu’s first fully Spanish-language title since his startling debut “Amores perros” turned up in a parallel program at Cannes a decade ago. The two films in the interim, “21 Grams” and “Babel,” broadened his audience without necessarily expanding on his art. Significantly, this is also the first of his features not written by his former creative collaborator, Guillermo Arriaga.
The first three films all deployed a nonlinear, elliptical story structure that fractured time and space. Increasingly, the form felt too geometric and mechanically constructed and depended on a myriad of increasingly strained coincidences and implausible actions that suffocated the sense of surprise, spontaneity or dramatic wonder.
Based on his own original story, Inarritu wrote the new script with Argentine-writers Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone. It does have a circular structure that opens and closes with the same mysterious, off-center confessional exchanges. Otherwise, the movie is sustained by a searing momentum that chronicles a downbeat, involving story of possibility, loss and absolution.
The emotional details and movements of the story are animated by the cryptic life and peculiar travails of the film’s contradictory and purposeful protagonist, Uxbal (Bardem).
He is an ascetic, solitary man whose impulses and motivations are often self-defeating or difficult to fully ascertain. Uxbal is a quintessential “fixer,” an expert in the machinations of underground or black market Barcelona economy.
He helps orchestrate a series of clandestine economic operations by illegal immigrants desperate to achieve some economic independence. He simultaneously helps a group of Africans sell bootleg or second-hand street merchandise and functions as the inside man in providing cheap Chinese labor for a coveted construction job.
Estranged from his wife Maramba (Maricel Alvarez), a “masseuse,” Uxbal holds custody over their two young children, Ana (Hanna Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) and is singularly devoted to providing some semblance of an orderly, safe world.
These are visceral, powerful strands to hold any film together. Unfortunately the always ambitious Inarritu never seems fully satisfied. In dovetailing movements that seriously unbalance the proper narrative, Uxbal is also viewed as a fallen Christ figure blessed with a rare (or wholly invented) ability to commune with the recent dead. He gains money on the side comforting the bereaved families of the deceased. 
These fluid identities taken in concert with his ritualized custom of helping though also benefitting financially from his dealing with the economically underprivileged is suddenly threatened by a serious, life-altering medical condition.
As he confronts his own mortality, Uxbal must find a way to make right for all those he feels watchful or protective over. The marginal include his wife, a brother, his kids and his adopted network of associates, like Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the Senegalese-born woman trying to provide sanctuary for her young son after her husband, one of the African workers, is arrested in a police crackdown.
Shot by the great Rodrigo Prieto, “Biutiful” is constructed in a torrent of expressive and impressionistic imagery. The filmmakers construct a stripped down, anti-tourist Barcelona. It is an unsentimental through the looking glass place that is forbidding, tough and exceedingly unwelcome.
At times the visual language is almost too solemn and deliberate. For all of his talent for creating evocative imagery, Inarritu sometimes angles for the assaultive. The opening sections of the movie feel a little too weighed down by the somewhat exaggerated and blunt tone or the director’s trademark corkscrew angles and vertiginous camera movement.
Uxbal’s ministry to the relatives of the recent dead is somewhat arbitrary and confusing and not always well positioned within the dominant story. Fortunately the filmmakers lessen the dramatic urgency, preferring to dwell on questions of fate and consequence.
As Uxbal is forced to contend with what he is heir to and his own culpability in the plight of the Africans and a tragic industrial accident with the migrant Chinese workers, the movie gains a forceful, cumulative power and intensity
Fortunately, the deeper he gets into the story, Inarritu settles down and discovers a more natural and dramatically compelling narrative rhythm. One key to the movie’s more natural and powerful sections is the adroit way Inarritu effectively cedes the movie to Barden and allows him to dominate the film emotionally and dramatically.
Somewhat reminiscent of the key Scorsese and DeNiro collaborations about religiously tormented artists trying to reconcile their deep moral and spiritual conflicts, this union of director and star finds a similar rich and troubling station that convincingly dissects the sacred and profane.
It is a showy, dramatic part. From the opening monologue to an enigmatic exchange with an unidentified man in the forest, Bardem works from the outside in. He utilizes subtle vocal rhythms and chances and the vulnerability of the body that effectively projects his own pain, guilt and need to redress grievances from the past. “Biutiful” still feels like a work in progress.
It remains a bit sprawling, rough around the edges and unfocused (like the focus of a somewhat unnecessary gay affair between two Chinese men overseeing the illegal workers).
When it is on, it is right as rain. Javier Bardem commands the screen. He gives weight and authority to his own—and by extension our—temptations.