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Alejandro González Iñárritu has created yet another masterpiece that will largely go unnoticed by the viewing public. Starring 2007 best supporting actor winner, Javier Bardem (“No Country For Old Men”), “Biutiful” (yep, that’s how it’s spelled) marks yet another magnificent performance by one of the best new faces on the A-list.
Set in the Barcelona underworld, Uxbal (Bardem) moves between jobs overseeing a sweatshop and attending funerals, where he insures the passing of recently deceased souls. Adding complexity to multilayered, Uxbal is dying of cancer and preparing his fractured family for life without him. His wife, Marimba (Maricel Álvarez), is bipolar and unable to take care of their two children. Did I mention he can see dead people? Yes, yes I did.
Uxbal’s work associates range from two gay Chinese businessmen running a sweatshop to an immigrant family who peddle drugs and fake Gucci bags, in the form of the tourist-centered street shopping popular in Spain, Italy and Portugal. But this isn’t a mere exposé about the injustice of global capitalism. Social wrong, a topic Iñárritu can’t help but address in all his films, becomes the background of Uxbal’s struggle to be a good man.
This isn’t a film about Matt Damon’s psychic abilities, yet the use of spiritual and supernatural phenomena, while sparse, doesn’t feel out of place. Adding such a narrative convention would easily code this work as a sci-fi or fantasy endeavor, but it’s clearly framed as a dramatic piece about one man’s contemplation about the importance of family and what occurs in the absence of a father (and mother, in lesser ways for this film).
One of Iñárritu’s strengths as a director is his displeasure with Hollywood racial representation. Mexico usually has some role in his films, but here Spain is re-imagined on screen. As usual, he provides a tragic glimpse of life in a major world city. Behind the image of legalized weed (past tense now, I believe) and the romanticized foreign locale, is a very familiar problem: the exploitation of people at work and home. Far from a demonization picture, Uxbal isn’t depicted as evil but filled with contradiction. He cares for the sweatshop workers he oversees, but he also needs to make enough money to prepare for his passing.
While thematically similar, “Biutiful” marks new narrative ground for the filmmaker with a knack for hyperlink cinema, those films with not one but as many as nine lead characters. The film is surprisingly chronological, with a touch of ambiguous bookending, and stays very focused on Bardem’s character, veering but slightly into a couple of subplots.
Much like directors Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee, Iñárritu is predictably depressing. Even the hope in his films is overpowered by editing and a score that doesn’t leave much room for anything but tears and puppy dog expressions from a helpless audience. Yet his films ring with an authenticity absent elsewhere, and a filmmaking style that is truly “biutiful.”
Iñárritu is one of three Mexican filmmakers tragically referred to as the “Three Amigos”, along with Mexican directors, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, who all made headlines in 2006 with the films, “Babel”, “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Iñárritu, the odd man out due to his lack of interest in sci-fi and fantasy, again lives up to the critical reputation, even crosses the line of straight drama (the supernatural connection).
Colin Firth is a shoe-in for best actor for his role in “The King’s Speech”, already nabbing a Golden Globe, but Bardem just might have his number with this performance. Oscar would do well to start paying attention to more foreign films. Sure, British cinema is foreign but the English language has long become a barrier in the way of discovering truly wondrous cinema. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006, the Academy blew it, nominating unworthy features, ignoring one of the most engaging films of the awards season (I’m aware that “Babel” was up for best picture that year, but it’s kind of a cheat when the stars are Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, along with foreign actors and non-English story elements).
Maybe Iñárritu will finally get his Oscar with the Best Foreign Language Film nomination, but he deserves the nom for Best Picture, above “True Grit” and “Winter’s Bone”. Sadly, Oscar doesn’t spend much time actually looking at the full array of films out there and this missed opportunity serves as proof.
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