Bad things happen. Sometimes you have to take responsibility for them. That’s basically how I would sum up the content of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film, Biutiful, and I suppose that could serve also as a way of describing the themes of his previous films too. Anyone who has seen any of Iñárritu’s previous films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) however knows that they cannot be that easily summed up in just eleven words.
And therein lies the problem I personally have had with the director’s previous films. He does in fact take a very long way around what in reality is a very simple idea or event, drawing it out to ridiculous length, overwrought with unnecessary detail and mired in overblown structure and technique. Expecting anything like subtlety from a Mexican filmmaker is however, I realise, asking for rather a lot, particularly when one is let loose on a script little better than a telenovela soap-opera with something approaching a Hollywood budget.
Going on past form then, I would have consequently had serious doubts about how far into excess Iñárritu would push Biutiful – the misspelt English title no doubt being ironic – the film set in the seething bustle of the lower-end rundown districts of Barcelona, getting down in the grim reality of life on the streets for its immigrant Chinese population working in near-captivity in miserable sweatshops and the realities faced by the black African street-sellers. Having, I confess, bought three-ties-get-one-free from such sellers outside the Corte Inglés on the Plaça de Catalunya (many years ago now), I expected to discover how I was playing my part in the exploitation of the third world and no doubt worse crimes, through an elaborate set of connections. Bad things happen. Sometimes you have to take responsibility for them.
It didn’t seem promising either that the person seeking redemption for his well-meaning but also self-serving involvement in the exploitation of these people at the hands of the Barcelona crime-lords and at the mercy of the corruption within the city’s police force, is a man who is dying – as we discover in graphic and painful detail at the very start of the film – from cancer. Add into that that the man, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), has a difficult relationship with a bipolar wife from whom he and his two young children are separated, and that he has a gift – more of a curse – where he can connect with the spirits of the dead who have not yet departed, and you have a recipe for a film on a par with the rich ingredients that go into the paella dishes they sell in the restaurants around the Plaza Mayor just off La Rambla, and the indigestion to go with it.
It’s a set-up that isn’t dissimilar to that of another Mexican film director, one who has also shown himself to be somewhat prone to excess, but to at least to be able to harness it towards more personal themes. Biutiful has a lot in common with the Carlos Reygadas’ ambitious but flawed attempt in his film Battle in Heaven to consider the bloody mess of conflicting forces of good and evil, of earthly desires and spiritual aspirations in another city of sin, Mexico City. And, make no mistake, Biutiful shows up the whole bloody fucked-up mess of life in Barcelona just as forcefully. If nothing else, you could at least be sure of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ability to get down into the whole gloomy mess with the same degree of realistic accuracy and painful detail. One might be less confident of the director’s ability to convincingly convey the film’s spiritual dimension. In this case, I am happy to be found wrong in my assumptions.
Some might still find those doubts justified by an air of almost magic realism that the film plays with at certain points – some are inspired and some feel like manipulative trickery – but there are also many other small details and inexplicable references that don’t add up to any overly convenient summation from the director’s usual god-like perspective, but rather leave the film much more open to personal interpretation and identification. What I like about Biutiful is that, while yes it can be summed up neatly in eleven words, there are also many other things that cannot be so easily categorised – the nature of fatherhood for example, plays a hugely important central role in the film’s theme of responsibility for others, the film being dedicated to the director’s father. Biutiful is consequently a much more mature film from Alejandro González Iñárritu and a much more personal one – not a film that acts and looks like it knows all the answers, but one that is searching for meaning and genuinely trying to find the beautiful in the most unexpected of people and places.