After a landmark career as the first Mexican director to be nominated for an Oscar, having three critically acclaimed films and a significant following in several countries, Alejandro González Iñárritu has come full circle with “Biutiful.” But it’s not one of those good circles that round out a standout filmography. It’s an endless cycle of death, desperation and despondency that runs the same tedious course with no hope of divergence.
At the State
Just like he did with the monolithic skyscrapers of Mexico City, the desert plains of Morroco and the crowded streets of urban Japan, Iñárritu underscores every sordid corner of Barcelona and drains his cinematic world of all natural light. A murky haze hangs in the air, no one smiles, prayers are never answered, babies cry perpetually and no cloud has even a hint of silver lining.
Uxbal (Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”) is a devoted father of two and the disgraced husband of a prostitute. He lives week to week by hustling working immigrants and bribing cops to look the other way. When he learns that he has an aggressive form of cancer that will kill him in only two months, he races to get his affairs in order and find his children a more suitable caretaker than their birthmother.
Even before he knows his life’s deadline, Uxbal is a burdened man. His bipolar wife refuses medication and cheats on him with numerous men — including Uxbal’s own brother — during her manic episodes. He is constantly haunted by the voices of the dead, especially the voice of a father he never met. And the cops are only a minor annoyance short of killing his entire business operation and leaving him with no way to provide for his children. In short, he’s a principled man against whom the universe has a brutal vendetta, and we pay ten dollars to watch him splayed in agony on a medieval torture rack.
“Biutiful” would seem an unfitting title were it not for the painstaking “cinematic language” — mentioned by many a critic — that colors Iñárritu’s work. An owl lies dead and half-buried in sand, ants crawl up a glass mosaic and cockroaches huddle together upside down on a dark ceiling. The picturesque imagery is a graceful complement to a well composed film. But this pastel of cinematic devices would be better suited to paint a Corot landscape than a Kevorkian death poster.
The irony of the grim premise is already obvious before seeing the movie. Iñárritu’s first three films — “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel” — were part of what was referred to as the “Death Trilogy,” a riveting depiction of death and its consequences. So how to take his latest story in a new direction? The simple answer is, with new characters and a new setting. It’s hard to use the whole “companion piece” exemption to defend the familiar themes that ruin “Biutiful” and waste Bardem’s acting chops. Really, the whole affair is a melodramatic “Saw” installment, except in lieu of average feature length you’ll get to cringe for two-and-a-half hours.