Bardem Wrestles With Slow Death in 'Biutiful'

Photo: biutiful, dark, twisted. In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 2010 film 'Biutiful,' Javier Bardem plays a dying man who communicates messages to the newly dead.
JOSE HARO/FOCUS FEATURES/Courtesy
biutiful, dark, twisted. In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 2010 film 'Biutiful,' Javier Bardem plays a dying man who communicates messages to the newly dead.





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No one does disaster better than Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. It's guaranteed that any seemingly normal family-oriented event, like sitting around the dinner table, will quickly go horribly wrong. And as soon as a car appears in a scene, you know that its passengers are toast. In Inarritu's new film "Biutiful," Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a middleman in Barcelona who experiences his fair share of disasters. But Inarritu has moved on from simply cramming in as much mayhem and hysteria as possible, which sometimes had the effect of diluting his films. Now there's even time for a touching birthday celebration - and nobody gets killed afterward.

Nevertheless, death plays a central role in "Biutiful." In his free time, Uxbal communicates with the recently deceased, so mourners can learn what their last thoughts were. This is a task Uxbal takes seriously (albeit for a fee), since he has an advanced form of cancer that will kill him in two months' time. On top of that, Uxbal jostles with his bipolar ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), over custody of their children.

This is only a thin slice of what goes on in "Biutiful," a film that is both more rich and low-key than Inarritu's previous movies. It is the first feature-length film he has made without screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, which may be for the best. Arriaga's script for "Babel" (2006) jumped among three different continents, and unless Inarritu wants to venture into outer space, there aren't many more places he can visit within a single film.

Inarritu wisely plants himself in one location - Barcelona - and uses Uxbal's position as a middleman to flow among the city's various strata. This plays to Inarritu's greatest strength: to make any environment he shoots in come alive. With the help of longtime cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who fills the frame with constant activity, he sheds light on a rapidly modernizing city that's experiencing growing pains. In one shot, we see a myriad of construction cranes perched high in the sky, and then, below street level, a cemetery that's about to be razed to make way for new buildings.

A steady influx of immigrants from China and Senegal maintain this construction boom. Inarritu does a remarkable job of capturing the challenges immigrants face, which is no small feat. In one particularly impressive scene, riot police materialize and chase a dozen Senegal street vendors through a busy, tourist-laden plaza. Uxbal tries to stop them from beating an acquaintance of his, but gets arrested in the process. His brother, posting bail, sums up the tension surrounding immigration succinctly: "You got in a fight over a black guy?"

"Biutiful" is in many ways a very good film, and it features a carbon-monoxide-induced accident that's deeply shocking, even by Inarritu's standards. However, the film is ultimately a step forward and a step backward for the director. With a 147-minute runtime, "Biutiful" goes on for far too long. Those powerful moments aren't diluted by a surfeit of mayhem but by a surfeit of time. Uxbal dies over an agonizing, two-month-long period, and by the film's end, it feels like we've been sitting for that amount of time, too.

Inarritu's 2003 film "21 Grams" illustrated that, although people die, often in terrible ways, life somehow goes on. "Biutiful" tries to accomplish the same goal, but you can't help feeling that Inarritu himself became trapped in this self-indulgent web of his own making.


Trap Max in your self-indulgent web at [email protected]



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