Friday, January 28, 2010

A Look At Life From The Elysian Side

Javier Bardem as Uxbal in "Biutiful", directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Roadside Attractions

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, January 28, 2010

The very first image of "Biutiful", Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film, is of an adult hand and a child hand.  There's a ring on a finger.  The ring is the focus.  Its ownership changes hands.  This image perfectly sums up "Biutiful", a stirring, melancholic look at transition and death, and everlasting afterlife.

The next scene shows Uxbal (Javier Bardem).  He's preternaturally handsome.  His hair looks like a lion's mane.  There's snow.  And trees.  Uxbal is treated to a sound effects exhibition by another man who looks younger than he.  It's the most beautiful scene in Mr. Iñárritu's fourth film.  As life would have it however, Uxbal lives in agony in Spain.  He's dying of prostate cancer.  He has two kids, an estranged wife and he's involved in illegal drug trading and the housing of Chinese immigrants in a sweatshop.

The description is grim, as is the film, but "Biutiful", a title referenced about two-thirds of the way through this epic, disjointed drama, is worthwhile viewing only for two reasons.  One is for Javier Bardem's 2010 Cannes Film Festival-winning and Oscar-nominated performance.  The other is for Mr. Bardem's performance.

"Biutiful", also nominated this week for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category, is the first film the director has done that focuses exclusively on one story.  "Biutiful" is Mr. Iñárritu's most personal film to date. 

If "Enter The Void" was a trip through the afterlife, and "Hereafter" was a prologue that inquired about what happens in the afterlife, "Biutiful" is a jarring, unfiltered journey through life and death.  Elemental, weighty and coarse, the film is involving but rigidly unsentimental and raw at times.  Mr. Inarritu adopts a visceral, blunt force trauma approach in his work ("Amores Perros", "21 Grams", "Babel") but patinas of warmth and tenderness emerge every now and again, allowing us to appreciate the richness of Uxbal's life as well as its complications.

Uxbal is indeed a complex figure, and Mr. Bardem, in the best work of his career, gives him the deepest dimensions and facets I've seen from an actor on the big screen in several years.  Acting from the inside out, with immense physicality balanced and restrained by the cerebral torment of a man in his last days, Mr. Bardem deserves the Oscar.  His Uxbal is a magnificent masterstroke of acting.  There's no trace of artifice or exaggeration. 

Watch Mr. Bardem in the film's best scene, with the character Bea (played by Ana Wagener).  They sit at a table and have a very important conversation.  Mr. Bardem's reaction is played so very well.  Mr. Iñárritu's camera allows us to generously behold Ms. Wagener as she says something directed as much to the audience as to Uxbal.  Ms. Wagener's work, albeit brief, should not be discounted, for it is the film's other stand-out work.

Several other scenes, including one in a nightclub, show Mr. Bardem at his finest.  His work is unforgettable.  At every opportunity he makes the acting counterpart in each scene better.

Far from perfect, Uxbal puts family first, and not just his own.  It could be said that Uxbal is a modern-day Jesus, and though he's never quite exalted that way, there are scenes that possess unmistakable allegorical qualities.  He's no martyr or saint, nor is he lionized as such.  The film's matter-of-fact treatment of occasionally disturbing subject matter understandably suggests that Uxbal may not be a mere mortal. 

Though the focus in "Biutiful" is on one story, the director can't resist prior techniques or habits.  His story glimpses a few interrelated matters if only as a fleeting respite from the wrenching anguish of the protagonist.  Still, several scenes beyond the ambit of Uxbal's affairs should have been excised from a film that is too long, and almost indulgently so.  Despite the enduring gloom and merciless length, "Biutiful" exudes overwhelming love and poignancy as it maturely observes relationships between fathers and children, past and present, and among different groups of parents and children.

The film's faults lie primarily in its diversions and in punctuating key moments with needless visual effects, which when juxtaposed against the film's sterling acting makes a mockery of it, overshadowing its impact.  In these instances "Biutiful" betrays its own single-mindedness and is at its lowest ebb.  Regardless of its peaks and valleys, the film will alienate moviegoers looking for silver linings.  The film's journey however, is a triumph in its own right.  "Biutiful" is a revelatory poem that revisits the consequences of choices made in a life.  The film's dialogue is replete with irony, contemplation and an honest, adult rendering of life's demands, challenges and relationships.

As grim as this drama is, you can't help but invest in Uxbal, and Mr. Bardem portrays him as a compelling figure of isolation and torment.  Uxbal knows himself so well, and his estranged, bipolar wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) still believes in a shared future despite all that has transpired between them.  Ms. Álvarez is effective, soulful and dynamic in her interactions with Mr. Bardem, which are often tinged with hope and joy as well as pain, cultivated by vivid memories of a better past.

"Biutiful" is a dour trademark typical of the director, who pours all of the feeling, mood and weight of the world into this big screen experience.  Overall, the film isn't easy or comfortable viewing, and it's not Mr. Iñárritu's best or most disciplined film, but it is worth watching.

With: Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernández, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff, Taisheng Cheng, Jin Luo, George Chibuikwem Chukwuma, Lang Sofia Lin, Yodian Yang, Tuo Lin, Xueheng Chen, Xiaoyan Zhang, Ye Ailie, Xianlin Bao, Rubén Ochandiano.

"Biutiful" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for disturbing images, some sexual content, nudity and drug use.  The film is in the Spanish language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is two hours and 28 minutes. 

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