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Film Review: Biutiful

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Throughout his filmmaking career, Alejandro González Iñárritu has asserted himself as a commentator on our modern condition. From Mexico in Amores Perros to California in 21 Grams and worldwide in Babel, his films at times lapse into self-importance at the expense of compelling storytelling, but map out a blueprint of social architecture and the misery that permeates twenty-first-century existence.

Here in Barcelona, separated from writing partner Guillermo Arriaga, the director abandons the multiple timelines and interweaved narratives for a more linear storyline, focussing on a single character and location; shooting up-close on handheld cameras, bathing each scene in deep blues and warm orange tones. Make no mistake though, the now-solo Iñárritu has lost none of his penchant for revelling in human tragedy. Uxbal (Bardem), a small time black market grifter, is diagnosed with very advanced prostate cancer. With barely two months to live he desperately tries to ensure his children's well-being before the time comes. The tragedy is accented by the fact that Uxbal is a medium with the ability to communicate with the dead, who whisper to him the regrets that keep them in this world.

This is as much a tale of social decay is it is of personal suffering. The city which Uxbal drifts solemnly through is itself a character, the decay reflecting its inhabitants’ own anguish, the spirits Uxbal encounters no different from the drained faces of those living around him. In his home, a patch of damp on the ceiling grows as his cancer develops, a clichéd technique that here is no less affecting. Bardem's performance as a man trapped in a series of events from which he cannot escape is phenomenal, his weathered features giving Uxbal a bold dignity, even as his body deteriorates.

It would be all-too easy to dismiss Iñárritu as a sadist, devoid of compassion, constantly piling misfortune after misfortune onto his characters. Yet there is a tenderness throughout Biutiful that keeps it from succumbing to mere fatalism. Uxbal's actions, even those that lead to terrible disaster, are compelled by his love for his children, and even as his life spirals out of control and the weight of his turmoil becomes unbearable, his thoughts are with them. The most compelling scenes surround Uxbal's attempts to reconcile his relationship with Marambra (Álvarez), the mother of his children. While there can be no doubt that this is Bardem's film, Álvarez gives a character that should be completely unworthy of our sympathies a vibrance and passion that makes her not only stand up to Bardem, but at times even outshine him.

Overall Biutiful marks a return to bare bones storytelling for Iñárritu, for all its eerie atmosphere and morbid fantasy there is a very human story at its core. While at times the constant ill-fortune is difficult to bear, the film's raw emotional charge and affecting realism is little short of true brilliance.




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