Mean Streets: Take a Closer Look at Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Biutiful’

Inexplicably each year, there is always a strong contender that is ignored in favor of crowd-pleasing Hollywood crap or group consensus picks. Last year, even though The Hurt Locker triumphed to win a deserved Best Picture and Director statuette, we were still forced to endure the blight of The Blind Side as a Best Picture nominee despite visionary work from celebrated international auteurs such as Pedro Almodovar (Broken Embraces), Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon), and Lars von Trier (Antichrist). This year, we have the non-offensive, pedigreed movies like The King’s Speech and Inception being bandied about and touted as major contenders for the top awards, while smaller-budgeted, globally-minded indies like Claire Denis’ White Material and Mike Leigh’s Another Year fly disturbingly under the radar despite stellar reviews and strong awards campaigns. But the film this year that has emerged as the most misunderstood and daring of the season comes courtesy of director Alejandro González Iñárritu – the man who brought you the polarizing Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) – in the form of Biutiful, Mexico’s official entrant into the Foreign Language Film Oscar derby.

Going into the Cannes Film Festival back in May, buzz on Iñárritu’s newest film Biutiful felt positive, there was a palpable excitement surrounding the film. But then, after the film’s bow, it was met with a strongly mixed reception and there seemed to be critical cries of praise and disappointment in what felt like equal accord. The Telegraph‘s Sukhdev Sandhu snidely labeled the film a “laborious stretch of designer depression, a remorseless headache,” in a terse, two-star, four-paragraph review. In Contention‘s Guy Lodge sharply pointed out, in his two and a half star short take review review of Biutiful, precisely why the film may have met with a limp response from critics: “There’s nothing like bleary-eyed festival fatigue to shorten one’s patience with films that fall a little short of either potential or expectation.” And therein lies the rub: how can critics who are clamoring to be the first to review the newest releases at film festivals across the world justify passing the layered Biutiful off as “laying it on a bit thick,” as Sukhdev wrote, or as a “cheap portrait of despair” as Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn wrote, when they are seeing several movies a day in the theater and are expected to tease out the nuances of staggeringly complex works of art at break-neck speed for an impossibly quick turnaround?

This reminds me of Tori Amos recently defending her latest albums, which have been largely long and thematically complex, against a critical backlash whose main complaint was that the records were too long or intricate to even listen to all the way through. Therefore, they were dismissed right out of the gate because there apparently just isn’t enough time to do it right anymore. “Some architects build cottages, some build cathedrals, Amos said in a 2010 interview. “I’m more interested in that shape where things are interconnected. I’m making the whole installation, not just the postcard. I’m not saying I don’t love postcards, but I like getting involved in something that takes me to another world for a long time.” I think that this sentiment beautifully reflects the sentiment behind Biutiful, Iñárritu’s newest, most breathtaking work to date.

The hard truth is that Biutiful is a challenging film, for critics and audiences. But don’t automatically assume that “challenging” = bad. While there are melodramatic elements incorporated into the wide-ranging scope of the film’s plot, to dismiss what Iñárritu does as simply being misbegotten melodrama entirely misses the point of what the director, a true poet at heart, is trying to do, which is to capture first the mood, then the milieu, and to transform it into a powerful, socially-conscious critique of systems of power that keep people – usually people of color, immigrants or the poor – from ever achieving success. Very few directors are able to do this in contemporary cinema on such a scale. There were a few critics who thankfully caught on to this after Cannes. Sasha Stone of Awards Daily called Biutiful one of the best films she saw at the festival, comparing it to a “Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, so strange and mysterious.” In this article, Stone goes on to further to point out the insular critical atmosphere of festival, in general, after taking heat for defending the film, which was (unfairly) perceived in many American critical circles post-Cannes as being an outright turkey. “Groupthink is like a virus,” said Stone. “Only about ten years on can we look back and see the movie for what it is. “

When I met with Academy Award-nominated Iñárritu and asked the director about his Cannes experience at an early-December New York press day for Biutiful, he echoed Stone’s feeling that Cannes was like a “bubble,” pointing out that quite often, critics often can’t find their way out of the fog that hangs over these events. Indicating with a twinkle in his eye that the flurry of mixed opinions was actually more exciting than infuriating, Iñárritu noted the “immediacy” that has found it’s way into contemporary film criticism through sound bite sites like Twitter. The director seemed good-natured about the varied response to his film, saying that he thought, again like Stone, that it would be something better appreciated after some time had passed, like any good film, and cannily pointed out that there are actually very few people who can even be called “film critics” anymore, that very few people possess the skill set necessary to properly do the job. During this candid, exciting conversation we spoke not only about the film’s critical reception, but also some of his artistic inspirations for Biutiful (including Maurice Ravel, Akira Kurosawa, Radiohead’s In Rainbows), and, of course, his leading man, Oscar-winner Javier Bardem, who took Best Actor at Cannes for his intense work in the film.

Lensed by the great Rodrigo Prieto (Iñárritu’s frequent collaborator, also a favorite of Almodovar and Oliver Stone), the film opens with a shot of a hand and a simple wedding ring, the director interestingly shows that some people do not believe they will ever touch or even see a diamond in their lives, let alone wear one. It is a simple moment of beauty and wonder that speaks volumes without being overly-fussy. In the sequences that immediately follow, the director quickly seasons the tale with surreal fantasy, the supernatural, and hardscrabble reality that make the film feel full, with no corner of this universe left unturned. The film transports the spectator into this faraway galaxy and asks them to travel from their worlds of privilege into one where mothers aren’t always saints, dinner isn’t always waiting on the table at the end of a long day, and where things are just generally hard. Moving swiftly from the deliberately obtuse introductory image to a wintry seaside forest (that immediately recalls the whiteout climax of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist [1970]), it is clear that Iñárritu traffics in images and emotions, deploying dialectical montage the subliminal way that Sergei Eisenstein pioneered with Battleship Potemkin (1925). The scenes collide into one another to produce a singular mood, and the director’s mastery of this specific technical side of filmmaking must be not only noted, but commended. To see a master of filmic construction at work, watch the details of not only these immaculate images and their various collisions, but also listen to the sounds in the films across Iñárritu’s filmography. You will hear the devil whisperign in these details – the sound on an Iñárritu film can be relied upon to physically punctuate the intangible sorrow, fear and rage of the characters. It will disarm you, just as the bluntness and sincerity of the director’s newest vision will.

Biutiful takes place in a kind of an urban border land, and in our talk, Iñárritu was quick to point out the “closeness” he feels with both the characters of his film and with immigrants in general, all while acknowledging his own privileged position and the responsibility he feels to making socially-relevant art. Turning the conversation to issues of class and privilege, we spoke about the impact of filming in impoverished neighborhoods that are largely hidden from tourists, where the film takes place, and the director indicated that for the most part, the cast and crew were greeted warmly, with curiosity, and they always approached the local populations with respect and dignity, as a part of the film’s very fabric. Talking about these interactions, a huge smile flashes across Iñárritu’s face as he recounts memories of filming Babel (2006) in areas where people had never even seen a camera before, clearly enamored of the sheer power of cinema, just as much as the crowds of onlookers he says gathered each day out of pure curiosity. Speaking of the technical challenges of shooting in complex, often rough neighborhoods, the director said: “it was hard – logistically. The permissions. I story-boarded the whole thing. Because it requires a lot of precision. It required a lot of rehearsals with the Senagalese people, they were not actors, they were real people who had never done stunts. The same with the policeman. It was a lot of training, a lot of logistical design, a lot of story boarding, and then confront the reality of the access of tourists who were looking. You cannot control it, such a big area. Sometimes you have to be running the cameras and crossing your fingers that people aren’t looking into the cameras, you know what I mean? Those kind of challenges are required when you’re exposing yourself to a fictional reality, we were kind of together in that sense. People were reacting sometimes and they didn’t know we were shooting.”

When (inanely) asked at the junket if he wanted to “help” the people in these neighborhoods following the shoot, Bardem said “Yeah…well…that’s not that easy. I mean how do you help people that are really in the middle of…no, in the bottom of their existence because we don’t allow them to have sometimes even the rights to express. So it’s not something…you can do things, but it’s about putting, for example, this movie out there and making people realize that there is something that we have to pay attention to which is the world that we create. I think our very comfortable way of life has constructed or is based in the misery of a lot of people. Just the awareness of it means a lot to them and this movie is important for that among many other things, but for me, for everybody. For me it’s important to put this out there. For example, people in Barcelona or in Spain, in the world will see that behind those numbers that show up in the paper are people. There are people with needs and it’s  important for them to say Uxbal, a Spanish person, goes through the same problem of necessity as a person from Senegal. So in the end they are both the same. So it’s not about color or race or origin. It’s about people.”

Bardem keenly pointed out “it’s not only in Barcelona these things happen. They happen all around, but I have awareness. I had awareness of how the world is going on in those cities about immigration and all these illegal factories that are treating people like modern slaves, but that’s intellectual. Somehow you hear it. You see it from a distance. You read about it. In this case you are obliged to live with it and so I spent, like, a good month in those places with those people, talking to them and what’s more important listening to them. Then the experience becomes personal, becomes an emotional experience rather than an intellectual experience. That’s the difference between having comprehension about an issue or really being affected by that issue. So after the movie of course my awareness of the whole ambiance of those worlds is much more powerful. I wasn’t surprised because there’s a lot of things going on in the backyard of any big town and Barcelona is no different from that.”

The glue that holds Biutiful‘s many pieces together is essentially Bardem’s mercurial turn as Uxbal, a mysterious, tough man who knows these streets like the back of his hand. Iñárritu is known for demanding his actors come in very prepared and become fierce collaborators over the course of shooting, in Biutiful‘s case, five consecutive months. “I think that the most important thing is when you feel like you have the same vision, that you share the vision, you know that they understand clearly who they are for you,” said the director during our chat. “Not only the physical appearance, but the internal nature of them. I have been very lucky to work with actors where I knew they would be, by nature, beyond the technical skill, some people that would be close in their nature to the character. I wrote this character thinking ‘Javier,’ so I knew that. It was like tailoring a suit to fit somebody with the correct measurements, you know? If you cast well, you are 80 percent ahead of the game. And then you have to get them all of the information they require. And then to make a fucking lot of takes and get what you need and cross your fingers that they will not slap you in the seventieth take.”

Bardem talked about how the project initially came to him: “He[Iñárritu] said, ‘I wrote this with you in my mind, but you are free to decline it.’ There is a lot of pressure when they tell you that they wrote this with you in mind. I’m like, ‘Oh, I cannot say no to this.’ But he’s wise and he said, ‘You can do it and somebody else can do it also. I would like you to do it.’ I read it and I’m a huge fan of his work and some of the greatest actors of all time have worked with him and have done some of their best work with him. So as an actor I was really interested in the process of how this man brings out some of the best performances of some of the best actors. I know why. Its working really hard and putting you against the wall, in a good way. He works hard. He doesn’t stop. The material and what he proposes to you is a life journey.  It’s not a performance. It’s like, ‘Do you want to jump in with me or not? You decide.’”

Which is also a great metaphor, in the end, for the film itself: will you choose to jump into it or not? Will you choose to ignore the critical consensus and make your own informed decision on one of the year’s most challenging, rewarding works or just let an overworked, under-paid internet journalist do all of the heavy-lifting for you? Biutiful won’t let you off the hook, it is not easy, and I for one, am thrilled that it asks the viewers to become a part of the experience, to learn, to share, to feel. This is why I go to the movies, not to be lectured or instructed, but to be moved, to be a part of an experience that I haven’t yet had. It is all about that tentative game of trust between viewer and director, which is just as important as the bond of trust between the director and his actor in this film. The most successful auteurs expect their audience to show up, in many ways, as their actors do when they arrive on set: prepared but open to throwing out all of the rules in favor of something dangerously original.

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Biutiful is now playing in limited release. Iñárritu has yet to select his next project, and Bardem will eventually be seen in Terrence Malick’s next film that will follow the hotly-anticipated 2011 release of Tree of Life. “I have to say that it was an amazing, extraordinary experience, a unique experience,” laughed the actor.. “I cannot speak a lot about it because I’m not allowed.”