Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu specializes in fractured narratives, multi-stranded stories that leap across space to provoke unlikely, unexpected connections. Amores Perros utilized the world of Mexico’s illicit dog-fighting world as its central story, while the stunning Babel skillfully interwove strands of narrative set in Morocco, Tokyo and the US/Mexico borderlands. With 21 Grams, Inarritu upped the ante even further, by introducing a choppy, non-linear storyline that kept viewers trying to figure out what happened when, until the final scenes sewed everything up. Here, then, is a director unafraid of nonlinear storytelling, and equally unafraid to invite his audience to do some work in absorbing the story.
The opening scenes of Biutiful suggest that the director is up to his old tricks. There are a couple of apparently unrelated scenes—a man gives a diamond ring to a young woman, two men stand chatting in a snowy wood—that have no apparent relation to each other or to what follows. Soon enough, though, the story begins to unwind in a relatively straightforward manner, and those puzzling opening scenes are set aside until much later.
Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a good-hearted lowlife in Barcelona’s gray market of illegal immigrants, non-unionized labor and pirated consumer goods. He’s got two kids and a loopy ex and he’s doing his best to hold his life together, but this is made difficult by the bribe-taking cops, illegal African workers and smarmy Chinese businessmen he’s forced to deal with. He’s also very, very sick—one moment in particular shows just how sick, in stomach-clenching detail—and in need of far more medical help than someone in his position is likely to get.
There is also the unusual fact that Uxbal is able to communicate with the newly-dead, which he pursues as a lucrative sideline. Given his history and current situation, though, it’s never made entirely clear just how seriously we are meant to take this.
As Uxbal struggles to cope with his deteriorating health, he simultaneously attempts a reconciliation with ex-wife Marambra while trying to improve the lot of the illegal Chinese workers he has connections to. This attempt has devastating consequences, resulting in one of the most wrenching sequences in the film.
Inarratu has good luck with his actors—or maybe luck has nothing to do with it. Gael Garcia Bernal starred in Amores Perros and Babel, the latter with Brad Pitt, while Benicio del Toro and Sean Penn were the central figures in 21 Grams. In Biutiful as in those movies, Inarratu coaxes an astonishing performance from his leading man. Bardem moves dreamily through a Barcelona underworld marked by flashy strip clubs, grim sweatshops and crowded streets. His face seems to show every moment of compromise and defeat of the past several decades. Like Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God, Bardem wears Uxbal’s existence so comfortably that he doesn’t seem to be acting so much as inhabiting the part.
The colors of the film are rich and saturated, and some of the director’s signature tricks are on display: moments of great activity coupled with utter silence, other sequences of sensory overload featuring flashing lights, overwhelming sound, quick editing cuts. Often, conversations are so quiet as to be inaudible. This doesn’t matter when a viewer is reading subtitles, as I was, but at times I was reading while unable to hear a single word. I wonder what a Spanish speaker would do.
The widescreen transfer is crisp and the sound quality as state-of-the-art as one might expect. The camera lingers lovingly on Bardem’s face, and there is a preponderance of close-ups: Uxbal, his brother, his ex-wife and children. I did not see this film in a theater but never got the sense, while watching at home, that I was missing some vital part of the big-screen experience.
Extras on this disc include a 21-minute feature called “Director’s flip notes”, which consist of behind-the-scenes film clips narrated by Inarratu. This lends some fascinating insight into the process of making the film, as when the director reveals that many of the African street merchants in the movie are not actors, but real immigrants who do were hired off the street while doing this type of work. Also included is a four-minute music video starring the production crew and a series of brief, not-terribly-enlightening interviews with Bardem and co-stars Eduard Fernandez and Maricel Alvarez.