‘Biutiful’ teems with grisliness, grace
Everything is decaying in “Biutiful.’’ Most of the clothes look soiled and damp. Insects slither on rocks. Leeches creep on a bedroom ceiling in Barcelona. If you prefer your cinema disinfected, this isn’t the movie for you. There isn’t a room that’s free of clutter, a wall that’s bare of stains, or a face that doesn’t droop with unhappiness to the floor. (That is filthy, too.) The camera is intimate enough with bathroom and kitchen tiles for mildew to warrant credit as a member of the cast.
Illegal African immigrants live piled in a dungeon apartment. Dozens of Chinese illegals live in worse condition — they seem barely alive. The sea washes up bodies, and not even the dead can rest in peace. A coffin is pried open, its resident removed, then cremated because the free space can be sold at a premium. Here, even the word “beautiful’’ is spelled ugly.
Through this misery walks the most dolorous figure of all, Uxbal (Javier Bardem). He’s a father of two, bedeviled by grave sickness, telepathic powers, and terrible, inexorable poverty, all of which the director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, uses to goose the dreary majesty of his filmmaking. A long face is merely a paintbrush, and grime’s just another artistic material.
Iñárritu, who is Mexican, invites us to slither along the city’s underbelly as Uxbal drags himself from one bad situation to the next, working as a middleman for the low-rent Chinese businessmen (Taisheng Cheng and Luo Jin) who run the sweatshop that manufactures the knockoff purses the Africans sell. That arrangement threatens to go south. Uxbal’s children are shuttled between his deeply untidy apartment and the home of his ex-wife, an uncouth, unwell masseuse named Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), whom we meet as she’s dancing drunk and topless on the back of Uxbal’s brother (Eduard Fernández) and occasional partner in fixing.
Iñárritu hounds Uxbal and the rest of these characters with bad news. If you’ve seen “Amores Perros,’’ “21 Grams,’’ or “Babel,’’ all of which Guillermo Arriaga wrote, you know that grisliness, with Iñárritu, isn’t next to godliness, it’s a higher power in itself, and suffering is a form of grace. There is no God here, and, in “Biutiful,’’ to judge from the souls Uxbal sees sitting in chairs and clinging to the ceiling, if there’s a heaven, no one appears to want to go.
The three movies Iñárritu made with Arriaga have been referred to as the “death trilogy.’’ Why stop at three? This, too, is a death march. But Iñárritu is working with new writers — Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone — so gone are the insufferable narrative contortions that were Arriaga’s stock in trade. “Biutiful’’ contains two cryptic bookends but proceeds chronologically.
Of course, this is still a lamentation that Arriaga could have written. A cancer diagnosis for Uxbal in the first 12 minutes telegraphs the emotional stakes — and, frankly, I’m tired of watching Bardem, this virile actor, waste away on screen. “Biutiful,’’ one of this year’s foreign-language Oscar nominees, takes impoverished suffering to heights unseen since “Les Miz.’’ Iñárritu doesn’t salute the poor’s dignity. He salutes himself for daring to dignify the poor — with dynamic cinematography, superb sound design, and art direction that’s painstakingly, melodramatically dirty. Poverty and disease are conditions in “Biutiful’’ in which one luxuriates. It’s tragic realism.
Still, Iñárritu sustains a level of absorbing grandiosity. A brutal chase sequence between the police and the African street vendors on and off Las Ramblas would make John Frankenheimer weep in envy. Even a street performer playing a gold-painted angel statue breaks character to watch. You can almost feel the bodies crashing into outdoor cafe tables. On the street and in the editing suite, it’s a deftly orchestrated scene.
Later, there is a propulsive, surrealist excursion in a nightclub where the dancers’ nippled derrieres and deformed heads look like they could use a bra and round of chemotherapy. “Bellissima, ’’ says a looped lyric in one song. Not for long.
When it counts, Iñárritu got to me — or, rather, Bardem’s courageously unhappy performance did (he was nominated for an Oscar this week). Bardem makes you feel for a guilt-ridden character the movie probably doesn’t need — certainly not in almost every scene. The truth is that the plights of the people Uxbal is helping — the two Chinese businessmen, a Senegalese mother, that unstable ex-wife — would make the better movie. Without Bardem, that movie would have only half a soul.
But Iñárritu doesn’t stop pushing. Álvarez’s entire performance, for instance, is the emotional equivalent of that foot chase. Iñárritu wants to run us ragged — physically, spiritually, emotionally, it’s all the same to him. And he’ll empty his complete cinematic arsenal to do so. The grimmer the scene, the more intensely chilling the sound design. One terrible discovery produces a whistle that made me almost hold my ears both times I watched it. The movie wails in pain. And it’s that sort of grand empathy that makes Iñárritu both impossible to dismiss and impossible to live with. His films are living organisms that are dying of art. Showing a troubled spirit hovering in the rafters isn’t just a dip into metaphysics. It’s icing on the ceiling.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.