Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 30, 2010 8:58 am 
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Bardem with Taisheng Cheng and Jin Luo in Biutiful

Barcelona meltdown

In this new film by the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, Javier Bardem plays a fatally ill mid-level gangster in Barcelona with family problems who tries to help out two groups of illegal foreign workers, with very poor results. In Amores Perros, which put the young Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna on the international movie map; in 21 Grams (with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn); and in the multi-national Babel, with Hollywood stars and unknowns, Iñárritu and his writer-collaborator Guillermo Arriaga wove chronologically and geographically complicated stories of intersecting disasters. Biutiful (not to be confused with the Italian documentary about the Camorra, Biùtiful Cauntri) is the director's first film since he split with Arriaga over issues of ego and credit-taking, and those of us who found their joint efforts too portentous and self-important had high hopes for a lighter touch from the clearly very talented director.

Biutiful indeed this time tells a chronologically straightforward story, all set in the city of Barcelona and centered on one main character, the fixer and middleman Uxbal, played by Bardem. Alas, the trouble wasn't just Arriaga. Iñárritu is still up to all the old tricks of piling disaster on disaster, in fact to the point of near-absurdity and a wearying length of nearly two and a half hours.

The movie begins with not just one but two portentous preludes. One is about a ring and the other is a mysterious meeting in a snowy wood. It turns out both link times and generations. And Iñárritu likes them so well he repeats them in slightly altered form at the end. Are then necessary? Not at all. The information contained in these preludes and their repetitions is conveyed in other ways.

Javier Bardem received the Best Actor award at Cannes this year for this performance. He is an actor of range and appeal, macho yet sensitive, with a playful, sweet smile and big soulful eyes full of sympathy and wisdom. He brings to Uxbal all that he can. As Scott of the Times pointed out, on screen Jesus hasn't usually required subtle actors, and Bardem is a kind of Jesus here and this story a chaotic modern Passion, but Uxbal is a complex role. It's a thankless one though. In the hurly-burly of Biutiful's nerve-jangling sounds and sights, its horrors, cuteness, and repulsions, a sense of Uxbal's experience gets rather plowed under. Like Ryan Gosling in the currently released Blue Valentine, Bardem gives a great performance in a badly put together movie.

Uxbal has his own impending death, a role in impossible social problems, and an imploding family to deal with all at once. He tries to take care of his small boy, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) and older daughter Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib), whom his young bipolar wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), a sweet but trashy and terminally unreliable semi-prostitute, can only intermittently deal with. Uxbal and Marambra live apart, but Uxbal must be going back and forth. He's also concerned with the welfare of 25 illegal Chinese laborers, whom he also exploits; likewise a group of equally illegal African street venders. The Chinese he's set up to do construction work, but they know nothing about construction, don't speak Spanish, and look obviously Chinese, all of which makes the unscrupulous building manager dubious. Uxbal negotiates with a cop to let the Africans sell, but the latter persist in working the best part of downtown, which is a no-no, and dealing drugs on the side, a double no-no.

These are the kind of social problems the Dardenne brothers deal with, notably in La Promesse and Lorna's Silence, but in their case the issues seem factual and the conclusions harsh; here they seem more like window dressing. As Scott says, "Mr. González Iñárritu does not have the stomach for the stringent moral and spiritual vision of authentically (or even experimentally) religious filmmakers like Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson or the Dardenne brothers. Instead he traffics in a vague theology of uplift, wherein the road to an entirely abstract heaven is paved with noble instincts. " The basic issue of the outrageous foolishness and moral confusion of Uxbal's life, not to mention its utter futility, is never confronted. It is enough that Uxbal makes it through the turbulent days and weeks depicted here, which a healthy man could scarcely manage. The story is wearying to watch, but making sense of it is a task beyond any of us.

The Chinese, including a woman and child Uxbal is close to, sleep on the floor of an unheated warehouse. When Uxbal buys them a bunch of cheap heaters, we know a disaster of one kind or another will result. (It's even uglier than you might imagine.) If that weren't enough, the Chinese boss, with a big family, is leading a double life as a gay man. Meanwhile, Uxbal is pissing blood, and when he gets his prostate cancer diagnosis, it's begun to mestastasize. The film finds only occasional opportunities to show tests and treatments, along with visits to a folk healer and wise woman whose steady eyes and tidily woven hair are perhaps the film's only focus of calm and rationality. She advises Uxbal to accept that he is dying and set his affairs in order. That may not be possible, either for him or Iñárritu. Both are the sort of person who enjoy the high of stress and disaster and can never get enough of it, and so can never envision peace or good sense.

US theatrical release (limited) began Dec. 29, 2010; UK, Jan. 28, 2011.

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