A man, his legacy and an ultimatum. Biutiful aims to capture the frenzy and despair in the final days of human life, as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tale of existential dissonance slowly spirals into a visceral waking nightmare of familial turmoil, appalling tragedy and supernatural apparitions. True to form, the director basks in the vivid iridescence of his shots, and alongside cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (continuing their partnership that began with Amores perros), he ensures that the audience gets an eyeful no matter the frame. Visual dynamism has come to define much of Iñárritu’s work, and Biutiful is certainly no exception.
Opening with the static shots of a film that feels partial to the stillness of life, Biutiful quickly envelopes its audience in a cloud of panicked energy that shifts between the many lives lived by its focal center, Uxbal (Javier Bardem). An illicit tradesman, loving father, apprehensive ex-husband, and occult icon, Uxbal’s constant fluctuation would be difficult for many directors to keep up with. After some tedious and character-revealing medical tests confirm what Uxbal’s body has been telling him for months, an expiration date looms on the horizon. As the only ones aware of his condition, the audience and the hero become intertwined by the secrecy of his death, and it is within this sacred bond that the film reveals a purpose.
Early in the film, Iñárritu uses his whirling camera alongside the bustling streets of Barcelona to create a sense of panic in moments of action. Walking down the crowded streets, drifting between bootleg enterprises, or making a meal for his small children, Uxbal’s life is fast paced but organized. The camera and its director only slow down for meetings with the lost souls of the newly deceased, and yet it is these moments that imbue the audience with a tingle of unease. These ghosts are as foreign to us (in a film of non-horror variety) as they seem to Uxbal — they are unsettling, jarring insertions into an otherwise normal life (film). Once the moment of diagnosis takes place (and becomes understood), the hectic life of our protagonist is turned into a purely chaotic enterprise. Signals become crossed, Uxbal sinks into forgotten vices, and the spirits become restless. As the race to leave his affairs in order begins, everything starts to fall apart.
Above the flashy cinematic gimmicks and somewhat vapid screenplay, Biutiful attempts to capture the frailty of life in a guttural, affecting manner. Uxbal’s cancer has done more than separate him from the innocuous “public,” it has prematurely removed him from his own life. Hints at this feeling surface as subtle deviations from reflection — at first, it seems as though the reflected Uxbal is moving more slowly, and eventually, the two diverge completely. Like a character study of a singular emotional truth, Biutiful sets its focus on this feeling of isolated panic, and covers it from all angles. Iñárritu (who wrote the story and half the screenplay) forces the character into a physical solitude with the reemergence of his apologetic ex, and plunges him into despair with the film’s climactic cataclysm. The audience is constrained to this singular vantage point until the character, or our initial love for him, begins to shatter. The ponderousness of these unknowable emotions adds complexity where it already exists, and intricacy where simplicity should have prevailed.
While Iñárritu’s tactics can become tiresome over multiple views, he is perhaps one of the greatest, single-experience filmmakers working today. His penchant for vibrancy and his love of curiosity allow him a unique voice in the film world and ensure that he will continue to make crowd-pleasing experiential pictures. Exploring these unknown worlds and unknown characters behind the eyes of their creator is something magical to encounter, but once the discoveries have been made, little is left to enjoy. Where Biutiful could have meant so much to so many, an overachieving specificity narrows its focus, and upon closer inspection, Iñárritu’s film seems to mean very little.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.