Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s stunning Oscar nominated debut, Amores Perros, undoubtedly helped raise the profile of Central and South American filmmakers worldwide. Whilst many of his contemporaries moved on to more mainstream projects, Inarritu staunchly stuck to his guns, creating films in his own distinctive style that continued to captivate audiences with their characteristic mix of thought provoking narrative, erratic plot devices and visually hypnotizing scenes. However, the beautifully puzzling and strikingly honest realism in his film’s has often been credited to his partnership with former writing collaborator, Guillermo Arriaga. Biutiful is Inarritu’s first feature without him onboard but will this sudden departure from non-linear storytelling detract from his unique and evocative style or leave it more vulnerable to criticism from those who say his work is a classic example of ‘Style over substance’?
Our central protagonist Uxbal (Javier Bardem) lives within the rarely shown bleak and dangerous underbelly of Barcelona. He’s a loving father whose devotion for his children is the driving force of his life as he strives to protect them from poverty that surrounds them. His work overseeing a small underground human trafficking operation allows him to provide food and shelter for his family but ultimately tears him up inside. Despite the dignity he shows these workers and his attempt to alleviate their cramped, cold, working conditions, he can’t escape the inner conflict and horrible truth that what he does is little more than profiteering from human misery.
Uxbal’s precariously balanced world is suddenly knocked completely off the rails when he is diagnosed with a terminal illness. This devastating news jolts him into realising that he must now take stock of his life. No longer can he continue living day to day, he instead must comprehend the legacy he will leave his children and the life he will soon bequeath to them. With only a matter of weeks left to live he sets in motion a personal quest for redemption, attempting to reconcile the relationship with his wife, help those he’s exploited and ultimately tie up the many loose ends he’s left scattered throughout his life.As you might expect Biutiful is the very definition of ‘feel bad cinema’ yet despite its harrowing premise it has much more to offer than just cheerless poignancy. Bardem’s performance is unquestionably deserving of the Oscar nomination he received for it. He radiates with an intoxicating energy that somehow manages to absorb you into his characters intensely distressing circumstances. The existential aroma of spirituality which shrouds Uxbal’s actions also adds gravitas to what is certainly an interesting perspective of morality. Combining these aspects with Inarritu’s entrancing use of lighting and eye for composition and you’re left with a gloriously picturesque film that will not only mesmerize you through its hauntingly powerful facade but leave you sincerely feeling emotionally drained by the whole experience.