Life, Above All (Biutiful Review)

When it comes to high-profile celebrity break-ups, its hard to forget that of creative duo Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga. After collaborating on three outstanding films, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel , director González Iñárritu and screenwriter Arriaga suffered a very public falling out.

This resulted in Arriaga being banned from the Cannes film festival the year Babel was screened and an open letter published by Iñárritu and other colleagues on the film in the Mexican magazine Chilango where they denounced Arriaga’s “unjustified obsession with claiming the sole authorship of a film”.

Following the row, each went their separate ways: Arriaga looking to Hollywood to direct his first feature The Burning Plain, an intricately layered story based on his own script and starring Charlize Theron and Kim Bassinger; Iñárritu in contrast, turned his lens inwards, and back to familiar territory, to plunge the murky depths of the modern metropolis. The result is Biutiful, released on DVD this month, Iñárritu´s first Spanish feature since Amores Perros.

Set in Barcelona’s underworld, a far cry from the boutique shops and chic hotels frequented by pleasure-seeking tourists, Biutiful centres on Uxbal (Javier Bardem, winner of the Best Actor Award at Cannes for his performance) a corrupt variant of a human resources manager: a trader in illegal workers. Acting for his morally questionable Chinese boss, Uxbal is the link between colliding cultures, from the North Africans who sell their dubious wares on the street, under constant threat from the Spanish police, to the Chinese workers confined to the warehouse where they live out their slave-like existence, and the unscrupulous men ready to exploit them.

I’s a bleak and hostile world but one that Uxbal tries to negotiate with dignity and compassion for those he is obliged to exploit. In part, this is the product of his fatherly sensibilities: he is custodian of his two small children, Ana and Mateo, as their alcoholic and bipolar mother Marambra (played by the excellent Maricel Álvarez), is completely incapable of looking after them. But Uxbal is also influenced by a rare gift, an ability to hear the dead speak before they depart from the world. When Uxbal discovers that he himself does not have long to live, this need to make good and resolve his responsibilities becomes even more poignant, despite the almost insurmountable obstacles against him.

In a talk he gave presenting the film at last year’s London Film Festival, Iñárritu described how the world he chose to depict in Biutiful was deliberately harsh, nonetheless the film does not feel like a morality tale. Essentially it is about the frailty of one man as he struggles to face his own terrible demons and make peace with his surroundings. As he approaches his death Uxbal re-examines his relationship with his absent father – the man who left his mother to go to Mexico just months before he was born, never to return.

There is something in the wistfulness and longing of that relationship that he transmits to his own children beyond his concern for how they will survive without him: the desire to be remembered and to be loved. While the film does not have the charged pace of his earlier Spanish-language work, the slower tempo makes it more contemplative; its haunting music (courtesy of the Oscar-winning Gustavo Santaolalla), sombre yet beautiful photography, even the moments of magical realism when we see corpses float through the air, all help to give the film a melancholy tone and the quality of an elegy, a constant reminder of the thin line that separates this world from the next.

It’s an intimate, personal film for Iñárritu – there is a dedication to his father in the closing credits – but it is also a collaborative one, amassing a range of talents including the Mexican Director of Photography, Rodrigo Prieto, Maricel Älvarez, his Argentine leading lady, and new screenwriters, Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, also from Argentina. As a result, Biutiful transcends beyond its lyricism as Iñarritu shows us once again what he does best, creating an authentic spell-binding world that we have been lucky enough to glimpse, and one which leaves us with the feeling that we have learnt something important about human nature.

by Sofia Serbin de Skalon

Biutiful will be released on DVD on May 16th

We have two copies of the Biutiful DVD to giveaway. If you’d like to enter the competition click here

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