Movie Review: Biutiful

By Peter Calder

Add a comment
Javier Bardem puts in an Oscar-worthy performance. Photo / Supplied
Javier Bardem puts in an Oscar-worthy performance. Photo / Supplied

Death casts a long, dark shadow across the fourth feature by the Mexican-born director of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel.

The main character Uxbal (Bardem, in a masterly Oscar-nominated performance), gets bad news from his doctor in the first few minutes; he talks (or perhaps pretends to talk) to the recently departed, helping them on their way and easing the pain of the bereaved; he has to disinter his father's remains from a cemetery being bulldozed for a development; he is implicated in an appalling tragedy at the film's midpoint.

In calling this film a requiem, Inarritu intends to contrast its linear, single-story form with the sprawling, multi-narrative style of his earlier "operas", but the word fits its elegiac substance too.

After two mysterious opening sequences, it is set in a Barcelona that tourists never see. Gaudi's Sagrada Familia is glimpsed on the far horizon from the Santa Coloma enclave, a multi-ethnic neighbourhood full of immigrants - many of them illegal - mainly from Africa and China.

Here, beyond his moonlighting as a corpse-whisperer, Uxbal plies various trades, simultaneously exploiting and assisting those around him as he gets work for illegals in sweatshops and on corner-cutting construction sites.

Meanwhile he strives to be a good father to his kids, Mateo and Ana, (Estrella and Bouchaib, radiantly naturalistic), while dealing with their bipolar mother Marambra (Alvarez, sensational), estranged but anxious to re-enter their lives.

With the Grim Reaper coming a step closer with every frame, the film is obviously no light entertainment, but the relentlessly downward narrative arc is not without its rewards.

At the head of a fine cast, Bardem, who seems to contain in his hulking frame not just a private pain but a distilled grief for the sins of the world, is mesmerising as a man striving to master a life that is slowly devouring him.

And the film's look, contrived by Inarritu's longtime cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is impressively stylish, if sometimes overwrought: street sequences, in particular a police round-up, are so realistic you can almost smell them; by contrast, a scene in a nightclub, that recalls Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, is massively, showily over the top.

But ultimately, the movie, a nominee for the foreign-film Academy Award, is much less than the sum of its parts: events unfold in a story that reads like a variant of the biblical Man of Sorrows but the viewer is left as bereft as the characters.

It would be unfair to expect a glib, moralistic conclusion, but after taking us so deep into lives of such misery, the film might have offered some glimmer of hope - or even just a reason for the ride.

Stars: 3/5
Cast: Javier Bardem, Guillermo Estrella, Hanaa Bouchaib, Maricel Alvarez
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Running time: 148 mins
Rating: R16 (Contains violence, offensive language and content that may disturb). In Spanish with English subtitles
Verdict: Grim and brilliant but ultimately hollow

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

© Copyright 2015, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 26 Nov 2015 23:44:21 Processing Time: 425ms