Loose Threads
By Chris Wisniewski

Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico, Roadside Attractions

If you took Ikiru, added a dash of The Sixth Sense, a dollop of A Woman Under the Influence, and then topped it off with a pinch of El Norte, you might end up with something resembling Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful. This isn’t the first time Iñárritu has taken a buffet-style approach to storytelling. In his previous features, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, he and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga built a brand around their multicharacter/overlapping/achronological storytelling, and though each of those films yielded successively diminishing artistic returns, Iñárritu and Arriaga steadily ascended to the top ranks of international cinema. The craft in those movies is easily discernible, and their intentions—their many intentions—are unmissable: even the most sober-minded critic would have a hard time denying the emotional intensity and the occasional beauty of Iñárritu’s movies, and, likewise, even the most superficial thinker should come away from them thinking they’re about something—human connection, race, class, anomie, globalization. Whether they’re saying anything coherent or compelling about those ideas is another matter. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, like Biutiful in its way, strain to make tenuous narrative connections amongst disparate characters separated by geography and social position, while striving to reveal a certain kind of atomization that, in this collaborative vision, defines contemporary life.

The first of his films in which Arriaga was not involved (the two had a public creative divorce) and also the first to be set in Spain, Biutiful marks an apparent and rather self-conscious turning point in Iñárritu’s career. The director, cowriting the screenplay with Armando Bo Nicolas Giacobone, has largely dispensed with the kaleidoscopic narratives and melodramatic histrionics that distinguished and diminished his earlier movies. By comparison, Biutiful almost plays like a restrained tone poem—a self-assured character study of a dying man who is striving to somehow put his affairs in order before he runs out of time. And unlike those other films, which are uniformly ensemble pictures, Biutiful is built around a star turn: as Uxbal, a single father suffering, like Ikiru’s indelible bureaucrat, from terminal cancer, Javier Bardem brings a quiet intensity that makes the movie appear better than it actually is.

Unfortunately, this lugubrious two-and-a-half-hour wallow shares, in both style and substance, the more-is-more approach that makes all of Iñárritu’s movies so frustrating, if intermittently affecting. All too often, of course, more ends up being less. Biutiful is a slow burn, and as Uxbal lurches toward his demise, Iñárritu packs the movie with overbearingly symbolic mise-en-scène and distractingly over-designed soundscapes that serve as an oppressive omnipresent reminder of Uxbal’s decay—clock-ticks and heartbeats, insects and bats, birds in flight and others dead or dying on the ground. At the basic level of sound and image, Biutiful gets awfully repetitive while, at as a narrative it devolves into a thematically scattered mess.

Despite its ostensibly single-minded focus on mortality, Biutiful manages to engage with the countless themes that dominate the rest of Iñárritu’s work, except here, they all emerge not through an elaborate series of narrative contrivances but through the one character of Uxbal. He earns a living, more or less, in human resources, trafficking in the labor of illegal immigrants. He’s also a clairvoyant, capable of speaking to the recently deceased, and he earns money on the side delivering messages to the bereaved. Uxbal’s multiple jobs allow Iñárritu to introduce an array of secondary characters, living and dead, and subplots that give the film a panoramic scope it would otherwise lack. Digressive storylines about clandestine love affairs and exploited Chinese workers are apparently meant to give a sense of the immigrant communities and underclass who populate the city of Barcelona, but here, they are underdeveloped to the point of being diffuse, and they blunt the impact of a movie that’s only compelling when its protagonist is onscreen.

Uxbal is a sympathetic and confounding central character—a tender, loving father, he’s also isolated and self-sufficient to an extreme. When he visits the doctor’s office at the beginning of the film, he refuses to let the nurse draw his blood, grabbing the syringe himself. After he gets his diagnosis, he doesn’t tell his loved ones, suffering quietly rather than betraying his condition. His emotional isolation seems to stem, rather ironically, from the fact that others depend upon him, both emotionally and practically. This is most acute in the case of his son and daughter, who live with him in part because their mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), who suffers from bipolar disorder, is incapable of caring for them herself.

Marambra is first introduced as the mistress of Uxbal’s brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández). Tito, on the phone with his brother, lies on his bed while a naked Marambra, spilling wine and smoking a cigarette, dances on top of him. Tito insists that she turn the music down; she turns it up. They struggle over a kiss; she slaps him. At this point, we don’t realize that Marambra has any relationship to the central characters, nor does Iñárritu do anything to suggest that her erratic behavior may be a result of mental illness. As a result, this grotesque display effectively stacks the deck against her. Though it engages with the sometimes devastating consequences of her illness (Marambra beats and otherwise abuses one of the children in horrific fashion), Biutiful never allows for sympathy towards Marambra, treating her disease exclusively as Uxbal’s problem to solve—as opposed to a malady suffered by a woman driven to damaging those she loves. This one-sided depiction of Marambra is the most problematic consequence of the film’s outsized ambition. Biutiful touches on a dizzying array of issues—in addition to bipolar disorder, child abuse, illegal immigration, and capitalist exploitation, there are a gay married man living on the DL and Uxbal’s own (of course!) unresolved father issues—without really saying much about any of them.

Part psychological portrait, part social-problem picture, Biutiful is both overstuffed and half-realized. Towards the end of the film, a well-meaning Uxbal buys a heater for the thirty-plus illegal workers who sleep in the freezing basement of a factory. His half-hearted good intentions backfire in spectacular fashion (foreshadowed through some laughably unsubtle sound design), resulting in a catastrophe that exposes Uxbal and his associates to legal action and would shake any reasonably ethical person to his very core. This thread climaxes in one of the most devastating shots of Biutiful, and in that moment, one could imagine a whole movie built around this single plot point—just as one could imagine a movie built around almost any of the subplots of Babel. In this film, however, this tragedy is only an afterthought. Certainly, Uxbal is profoundly disturbed by what happens; he weeps and questions himself and his priorities. But he quickly moves on. After all, he’s got to get on to the business of dying, and he has children to take care of and affairs to settle. That must be his focus; it should have been Iñárritu’s as well.