Biutiful: At Least It’s Not Babel!

12/22/2010 4:00 AM |


Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

With his latest effort, Alejandro González Iñárritu, having parted ways with longtime screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, scales down from the globe-hopping monstrosity of his last feature Babel. In Biutiful, the director confines his interests in globalization to the multi-national activity within a single city (Barcelona); focuses on a sole principal character; and limits himself to two main themes, one social (cheap immigrant labor), one metaphysical (death). As Uxbal (Javier Bardem) prowls the mean streets of the Catalan metropolis, overseeing contracts for illegal Chinese and African workers, he gets some bad news from the doc: All that blood he’s been pissing means he’s got terminal prostate cancer. The realization of oncoming mortality leads this essentially moral man to look for redemption in both his labor practices and his personal life, even as his best efforts often lead to tragic consequences.

If we take seriously the claims of González Iñárritu’s films to enlarge our understanding of the world, then Biutiful is as useless as its forerunners, its focus on the horrors facing immigrant laborers dropped halfway through, leaving their residue in a single character who seems to exist merely for Uxbal’s moral deliverance. In the end, it seems only possible to praise the film in negative terms, which is to say it’s not Babel, though the director makes as insistent use as ever of a maximal aesthetic—perennially whipping camera, heartbeats worked into the dense soundtrack, aspect ratios switching up mid-film, mismatched eyelines—replacing texture with empty flash. But when all you’ve got is a brooding Bardem endlessly awaiting his demise, you’ve gotta do something.

Opens December 29