Sunday, April 10, 2011

Caitlin's Review of Biutiful

Buried Life a review by Caitlin Murphy

In various versions of the same quotation, Ernest Hemingway explains his ‘principle of the iceberg’ – essentially advice to story-tellers about how little they actually need to show of what they know; the more you can bury, the better, Hemingway argues. He would have liked Biutiful.

Directed and co-written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Amores Perros), Biutiful is set in the bleak underbelly of Barcelona, where Uxbal (Javier Bardem) makes his livelihood greasing the wheels of illegal trade – counterfeit, drugs, and exploitative labour. He is a small player, but with big responsibilities. A father of two, separated from his bi-polar wife, Uxbal learns he has prostate cancer; the diagnosis seems a cruel irony in a world already rife with so many other more obvious dangers. Biutiful not only demonstrates impressive economy of narrative, but perfect casting and stunning cinematography. In short, the film is exquisite.

Inarritu and his two fellow screenwriters (how did this not lead to disaster?) share a keen sense of Hemingway’s iceberg and craft a story that consistently resists the need to explain itself. Backstory here is rich, meaty and seductive, and political issues of class, corruption and social ills are casually woven – not shoe-horned – in. The filmmakers ultimately achieve a moral complexity that is refreshing. When characters make the ‘right’ choice in this world, it is no moral triumph; we feel they could have just as easily (and understandably) gone the other way. And this is of course the reality of untenable situations. After a failed attempt to reunite his family, Uxbal goes to take his son from his dysfunctional wife, and a struggle ensues. All is distilled in this image: she won’t let go, he won’t let go. In impossible situations, what room is there for ‘right’?

Uxbal also has a special gift connected to the film’s motif of death: he is able to hear the thoughts of the dead. He thus takes money from grieving relatives, desperate to hear from their departed loved ones. But of course the dead will never tell us what we want to hear, and there is no comfort they can really offer us. A dead child confesses where he hid a watch that he stole, an old man reports that his hair felt like it was on fire. Honesty, yes; solace, no. The callousness Uxbal displays in making money from people’s pain is oddly undermined by his insistence on telling the truth. Wouldn’t it be easier to lie, tell people what they want to hear? The complicated integrity of our protagonist is his most intriguing trait.

Indeed, Uxbal is not nearly as corrupt as his brother who works alongside him in Barcelona’s murky underground, but who lives an obscene lifestyle of rock-star excess. After a tragedy involving illegal immigrant labour, Uxbal seeks out his brother at a nightclub. The exotic imagery of the club – a woman climbing the walls with breasts painted on her buttocks, a single breast painted on her head-piece – is disorienting and grotesque. The film points out that despite the horrifying discrepancy between the haves and the have nots, the users and the useds, both of their worlds are absurd and soulless.

A common thought about film directing is that 90% of its success lies in casting. That is, the most important work in a film is already done before a single frame is shot. Inarritu gave himself a sublime gift with the cast of Biutiful. In several scenes the ensemble acting achieves an eerie naturalism; family dinners, for instance, readily convey an ease and spontaneity and come to life brilliantly. Bardem is very available as an actor; nothing is forced, all seems effortless. When Uxbal returns home, destroyed from a night of drinking, he stands in the kitchen, hovering unsteadily over the food he’s about to eat – it’s an image we quickly recognize from our memory banks. He notices his daughter’s artwork on the fridge, the word ‘beautiful’ on it, misspelt as the film’s title. The camera-work and specificity in Bardem’s performance render the vulnerability of the moment palpable. The tragedy of existence is clear: our struggles are mocked by our ideals. And the irony in the misspelling of ‘beautiful’ reminds us, like messages from the dead, that what is imperfect is often simply true. For instance, the first person Uxbal finally tells he has cancer is a stranger, a random woman in a bar; the moment feels unfortunate, but painfully apt.

Biutiful is lushly photographed, and the scenery, though often gritty and harsh, is vivid and painterly in its composition. The surreal images associated to Uxbal’s imminent death are most effective when so subtle we’re not even sure we’ve seen them – his reflection or his shadow sometimes move out of synch with his actual movement, for example. Later, however, the imagery becomes much more explicit, nearing spectacle; Inarritu could have mustered more restraint in places. However, this strikes me as one false step, in an otherwise flawless choreography.

Explaining his aversion to doing audio commentaries for DVDs, Inarritu once said: “I feel that if you have to explain something it loses strength. It`s like a magician trying to explain his magic, in a way. Those kind of things make me feel like I`ve lost something special about the film. The film should explain itself.” This resistance to over-explanation serves him very well as a master story-teller. Biutiful is an impeccable film, a most beautiful iceberg floating heavily, gracefully along.

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