Alejandro González Iñárritu has directed 4 of the most superbly depressing films since 2000. With his film “Biutiful,” starring Javier Bardem; Iñárritu emerged from a long hiatus since his “Death Trilogy.” “Biutiful” carries a more straight forward narrative from the “Death Trilogy” films (“Amores perros”, “21 Grams”, “Babel”), but still drags us irresistibly into facing death.
The chorus of critics echoes a heavy handed director redeemed by Bardem’s “Best Actor” presence. Critics shouldn’t write-off Iñárritu as a melancholic filmmaker fixated on confronting us with death. The acclaimed Mexican director has 4 feature films each explore different avenues of death and its repercussions on the living.
With “Biutiful” Iñárritu directs a lost soul in the seedy immigrant neighborhoods of Spain, sustaining his children by any means and discovers he is stricken with cancer. Bardem’s character will die; we know that much, but his journey in those last days reflects the idea of mortality on a mission.
It may seem clichéd to have a dying man discover what’s important in life, but Iñárritu’s method is by no means conventional. The film borders on supernatural with ghosts clawing at the corners of scenes, but it never goes full poltergeist. Iñárritu’s collaborative cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has taken their style into even darker territories. “Biutiful” is also engulfed by emotive and at times disturbing soundscapes, like otherworldly tones of death itself.
“Biutiful” captures gritty urban landscapes familiar to Iñárritu and Prieto, along with moody colors and exhaustive close-ups. The extreme close-ups are essential storytelling for Bardem’s Uxbal trapped by his own existence. Uxbal’s skills as a spirit medium chain him to processions of mourners seeking his services. Underworld ties to Senegalese street vendors, Chinese businessmen and dirty cops encage his humanitarian core within ethical ambivalence.
With Bardem’s performance we see a man’s cancer that is not just life choices and living conditions, it is a symbolic cancer. It is a societal sickness eating away at his country, the future of his children and the globalization’s contaminating factors. What factors? Corrupt capitalization, human trafficking, economic genocide, uprooted cultural and values, as well as empty consumerism.
Iñárritu’s “Biutiful” could be a companion piece to his compatriot and producer, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men.” Both films deal heavy handy themes of immigration and symbolic diseases disintegrating society. Cuarón deals with an infertility epidemic, questioning birth and revolution to thematically unite the future of revolution. Iñárritu deals with cancer’s deeply profound effects on the individual, questioning social corrosion to thematically unite the death of cultural and roots.
Bardem’s Uxbal and Clive Owen’s character Theo in “Children of Men” share characteristics in being martyrs of their environment. They are apprehensive heroes wanting to make a difference through a means to their own end, only to realize they won’t enjoy the fruits of their labor. Uxbal and Theo are quiet revolutionaries who see individuals for who they are and not what they appear to be in society’s eyes.
In both “Biutiful” and “Children of Men” the protagonists are lost within, but rediscover themselves in the film’s metaphorical imagery. Theo is lost within a sea of his own abandon, only to discover a purpose driven life through death in a drifting boat. Uxbal is lost within a forest of the unknown and forgotten, only to find what he was seeking in his dying dream of a forest.
Uxbal and Theo want what all of us want in death: to be remembered. Where Iñárritu and Cuarón depress us in imagery of humanity’s defeat, they give us characters that penetrate the world’s living memory. Fittingly, “Biutiful” and “Children of Men” are films not easily forgotten.