Biutiful is a complex movie, and not so easy to simply say what it’s ‘about’. If it’s merely the sum of its parts, it’s a film about a father’s relationship with his children, dealing with a bipolar wife, confronting death and inevitability, running an illegal Chinese counterfeiting ring, and of course, communicating with the dead. Like I said, complex.
But fortunately, Biutiful is more than the sum of these seemingly disjointed parts. And had I seen this film back in 2010 when it was screened at a few festivals, it would have easily made my top ten movies of the year. Sorry, Restrepo – you’d be getting the axe.
What they get right
First, and most critical to the success of the film, is Bardem’s devastatingly good performance. I had no idea there were so many subtle layers of misery. In a film so devoid of anything positive and joyous, Bardem’s performance is a welcome reprieve, and establishes him as a welcome guide through the worst of circumstances. We end up caring about what happens to this man. His journey is enthralling to watch, even as it breaks your heart.
Additionally, Biutiful is a film that is served very well by both the cinematography and soundtrack. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vision of a dark, yet familiar world envelops the audience. Combined with Bardem’s exceptional performance, the effect is potent and hard to shake.
Where they screw up
But there are times in the film when the multitude of unfortunate circumstances seems a bit…much. Don’t get me wrong – shit happens – but sometimes it feels like Iñárritu is at best a bit of a sadist, and at worst, purposely manipulating the audience. I’m fine with ‘downer’ movies. Rabbit Hole made my top ten this year and Precious was among the better movies last year, but (without giving too much away) one event which occurs around the three-quarter mark of the film just seems to be included to make the audience feel like shit.
Also, while the many subplots running through Biutiful give it a sort of complex depth, the ‘Chinese counterfeiting ring’ plotline feels like it could be completely removed and the story would be just fine without it. Actually, considering this movie is almost 2.5 hours, ditching it might not have been a bad idea.
Make no mistake, if you make it through all of Biutiful, you won’t be feeling great afterward. In fact, after my 2.5 hour down-a-thon, I walked out of the theatre in a bit of a haze, still completely levelled by the film.
But there’s a dark beauty in the ugliness of this movie, and despite the length of it, it never lost me for a moment. On top of that, Bardem’s performance is superb, and really begs people to watch this film if for no other reason.
Ultimately, Biutiful may not be pretty, but it’s definitely one of the year’s best.