Friday, February 11, 2011

Biutiful: Anything But

Javier Bardem in Biutiful
One of the most telling aspects of film criticism these days is what I call the double standard when it comes to reviewing foreign language art house films. Reviewers, and sometimes the public, have no trouble calling out or exposing crass, manipulative or exploitative Hollywood movies (and there is no shortage of those) for the frauds that they are. But stick subtitles on an equally meretricious film, albeit one that takes place in a European, South American or Asian setting, and suddenly the superlatives and praise are thrown out with wild abandon. From Michelangelo Antonioni’s terribly pretentious and terrible Red Desert (1964) through to more recent offensive movies such as The White Ribbon (2009), Michael Haneke’s facile ‘expose’ of fascism, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's startlingly inept and empty Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), this blind spot is persistent everywhere in film reviewing circles. Biutiful, the latest film from Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perres, Babel), fits neatly into this category.

Set in a deliberately unappealing Barcelona, photographed by Iñárritu's usual cinematograher, Rodrigo Prieto, Biutiful (which is how the word 'beautiful' is spelled out phonetically in Spanish) is the story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a psychic/petty criminal who, as the film begins, is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. With two kids to raise, an unstable ex-wife (Maricel Álvarez) to deal with and the cops breathing down his neck, Uxbal has it hard enough anyway. But now everything bad that can happen to anyone else, happens to him, in spades and interminably. Unlike Akira Kurosawa’s wonderfully moving Ikiru (1952), wherein a dying man finds meaning in life through his dire circumstances, Biutiful is determined that its protagonist doesn’t get any understanding or insight out of his situation, except that everyone will screw him if they can, including his ex-wife and brother. Exploitation of one’s fellow human beings is the norm and it turns to shit in the end, anyway. Iñárritu is insistent on rubbing the viewer’s nose in constant misery and dirt, but to no artistic effect. Biutiful is glum, pessimistic and tragic to a fault, so much so that it can’t breathe or develop any head of dramatic steam. Being negative and dark just because you can be is no more appealing than proffering a Pollyannaish, unduly optimistic view of things; neither point of view makes for satisfying cinema.

A scene from Biutiful
With that nihilistic approach to the material, it’s no surprise that the movie is such a remarkably heavy-handed concoction, best exemplified by Bardem’s (inexplicably Oscar-nominated) lead performance. With his perpetual hangdog expression, and unshaven features, the mostly short-tempered Uxbal is not a part Bardem can do much with; he’s an obvious symbol of pain and suffering, almost Christ-like in his demeanour, rather than a fully rounded individual who would hold one’s interest. Even his so-called psychic powers – which allow him to communicate with the dead before they ascend to heaven, and allow Uxbal to make some money passing on their last words to their surviving loved ones – don’t make much sense in the movie. He doesn’t seem to be able to anticipate what people will do to him in the future, nor use those extrasensory abilities to make a good living. In any case, his powers are so haphazardly inserted into the film, and badly staged by Iñárritu, that they may as well not be in the movie at all. Magic realism is not Iñárritu’s forte, but I’m not sure anything is. Even the movie's one original conceit, different coloured subtitles corresponding to whether the speaker is African, Chinese or Spanish, is superfluous since it's obvious to any viewer that various languages are being spoken.

Iñárritu’s less-than-impressive previous movies include Amores perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). All were co-written with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, and shared the common theme of diverse people connected to each other through a specific violent incident. That trio of movies was uniformly trite, far-fetched and clumsy, but unlike Biutiful, which Iñárritu wrote with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, they at least tried for some profundity and possessed a dollop or two of humanity and subtlety. No such luck here. (It would be a crying shame if Biutiful, which is favoured to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, beats out Denis Villeneuve’s powerful, realistic and delicate Incendies in that category.) That Biutiful was co–produced by Iñárritu’s talented Mexican compatriots and friends, filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Children of Men) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) only serves to remind one of his deficiencies as a filmmaker. This movie’s for masochists only.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is currently teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute. For more information click on to the Ryerson catalogue

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