A movie without struggle, is usually boring. It’s the way storytelling is supposed to go, there’s a protagonist, build up, struggle, climax, resolution. But if all that character does the entire time is suffer and struggle, it’s also uninteresting. As is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, Biutiful. It’s painful to watch what Javier Bardem’s character goes through. Its pace is extremely slow, and since the film demands no emotional investment, Biutiful will leave you feeling a bit cold, and a little bored.
Bardem plays a man named Uxbal. He lives in a gritty, impoverished area of Barcelona who’s skyline only provides distant and hazy glimpses of the city’s tourist and cultural sites. He’s handling two kids by himself, and an alcoholic, metally unstable ex-wife. He deals in the labor of illegal immigrants, Chinese and African mostly. And in one of the first scenes of the film, he pisses blood. An initial doctor’s visit reveals it’s cancer, it’s taken over his prostate and liver already, he only has a few months to live.
Not a good hand to be dealt. It’s made clear we’re expected to watch this man, a good father, kind to the illegal immigrants he works with, take punch after punch. His suffering is epic, in every sense of the word. A modern-day, Spanish Jesus, meant to take the world’s sins on his head. Usually, I would be an emotional wreck during such a film. The darker side of me finds beauty in the struggle of humanity. But Iñárritu just flat out missed the mark here. There’s no connection for me to empathize with, nothing to relate to.
That’s not to say the whole thing is a waste. Uxbal also has metaphysical gift, one that’s downplayed so much it could almost slip under the radar of someone not paying full attention, it could be written off as dream sequences, or hallucinatory side effects of cancer medication. He can speak to the recently dead, if they haven’t yet gone into the proverbial light yet. Sometimes Uxbal’s reflection doesn’t behave as it should. Some of these preternatural scenes are infinitely more effective than the rest of the nearly one hundred and fifty minutes. When the audience is allowed to view these spirits they’re silent, often clinging to the wall and roof of a room, as if they lost their concentration, they would float away. These brief moments do what Iñárritu wanted to do with Biutiful as a whole: create a sense of connection between secular and spiritual struggles and other platitudes more at home in pulp media. Of the entire film, these are the scenes I took away as anything of value.
Bardem’s nomination for best acting by the AMPAS is well deserved. The film would have crumbled in on itself if it weren’t for an actor who possess the solemnity and depths required by such a melodramatic story. Iñárritu’s ability as a filmmaker, his compositions, his usually confident but meditative pacing (like we saw in Babel and 21 Grams) may have still made their appearrance in Biutiful, but it’s lost in the ho hum of a film too pedestrian for the audience it was shooting for.