Friday, February 11, 2011

Film Review | Biutiful

Biuty and the Beast

by Thomas Delapa

The Mexican-born director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu isn’t much on subtlety. The doleful life portrayed in his latest globalized drama, Biutiful, is anything but beautiful. Despite a pretty fine performance by Javier Bardem, dramatically Biutiful is less than skin deep.

Oscar-nominated for his lead role as Uxbal, Bardem is a conflicted Barcelona grifter who deals in the ugly business of human trafficking. As shady middleman, he procures illegal Chinese immigrants for his brother’s construction jobs. Uxbal also has his dirty hands in the exploitation of drug-dealing African immigrants, who are continually rousted off the street by the Spanish police.

Through the prism of jagged, herky-jerky storytelling we’ve seen before in Inarritu’s Babel and 21 Grams, we glean that Uxbal is one hombre with mucho problems. He’s separated from his needy, bipolar wife (Maricel Alvarez). He tries to be a good father to his two kids, but they’re a handful, especially at dinnertime. (The film’s title comes from his daughter’s misspelling of “beautiful.”) But most dire, Uxbal’s doctor shocks him with the news he has prostate cancer. At night he anxiously stares at his stained ceiling, pondering his fate and misspent life.

The glum underworld flip-side to Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona (which Bardem also starred in), Biutiful isn’t on any tourist map, except for ironic glimpses of Gaudi’s famed Church of the Holy Family off in the distance. Looming larger are factory smokestacks seething black plumes. This is a place of squalor, crime and corruption, where Uxbal’s cancer is nothing if not a creeping metaphor of a sick and impotent culture that feeds on its young.

Inarritu is a tricky director, hiding his blunt, post-colonial themes under a veneer of grubby naturalism. Like Babel, Inarritu’s picture of the Western world is so biblically decadent and diseased, death appears as the only just way out. Few rays of hope shine in this hell, one falling on a beatific black immigrant (Diaryatou Daff) whom Uxbal redemptively tries to stake to a new life.

As a dirge for a doomed man, Biutiful makes Leaving Las Vegas look like Sleepless in Seattle. Inarritu and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto are determined to make us recoil in horror, sorrow and pity. Uxbal exhumes his dead father’s decaying body to say his final goodbye. Step by Golgothan step, we chart Uxbal’s bathroom miseries as the cancer progresses. To make sure we have a Joseph Conrad anti-epiphany (“the horror, the horror”), we witness what happens when you mix a room full of sleeping Chinese laborers and a cheap heater.

In this cadaverous exercise in cultural self-flagellation, Bardem marches on, treated like a lab rat forced into a meat grinder. We dutifully expect (and get) scenes of Uxbal’s potential atonement—along with obscure visions of an afterlife—but this is a character far less deserving of otherworldly redemption than a down-to-earth judge and jury.


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