Can you admire and respect a film without actually liking it? The answer is yes, and Biutiful is a perfect, personal example. I saw it at the Telluride Film Festival last fall, and appreciated director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu’s comments before the screening. He explained that he deliberately set out to make a tragedy, and since he relates each of his previous three films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) to a musical style he would choose a requiem as the equivalent of this downbeat drama.
Javier Bardem is deserving of his Academy Award nomination for his impassioned performance as a man whose life in Barcelona is coming apart at the seams. He struggles to raise his two young children on his own because their mother is bipolar and is in and out of the hospital. He makes a living in various shady ways, including facilitating—
—under-the-table work for illegal Chinese immigrants, who toil in a sweat shop creating bogus designer handbags. Then he learns he has advanced prostate cancer. In fact, things just keep going from bad to worse. The film is a litany of gloom and despair…and it is unrelenting.
Bardem’s character, Uxbal, is not one-dimensional. We see many facets of his hectic life as it veers out of control. He loves his children. He even loves his wife; he just can’t live with her or allow her to raise the children in her manic state.
A friend of mine found the movie hopeful because the character refuses to surrender to his imminent demise and keeps fighting to make things right…but almost nothing does go right. I understand his interpretation, but I didn’t feel it. What I felt was utter despair. Biutiful is quite long, but the length didn’t bother me; it was the pervasive air of gloom that pulled me down and wouldn’t let go.
So I can respect González Iñárritu’s intentions, and the skill with which he tells his multi-layered story, but I found the film too oppressive to enjoy on any level. My admiration for Javier Bardem is boundless, but it would be difficult for me to recommend Biutiful to anyone who doesn’t have a taste for genuinely challenging drama.