When a film throws its protagonist through the ringer, bringing on every possible suffering, there's two possible ways it can go: uplift, in which the hero triumphs over all of his problems to be made a better person, or misery, in which he succumbs to his ails, but perhaps we, as an audience, have learned something from it all. Biutiful, a new film from master of miserablism Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, fits squarely in the latter category, starting with Javier Bardem's Uxbal discovering a dead owl in a snowy forest, and only going downhill from there.
The film follows Uxbal, a Spanish Job in Barcelona. He's separated from his wife, with whom he has two young children, and little does he know that she is now sleeping with his brother. A man of connections, he helps both West African and Chinese immigrants, most of which are undocumented, find work producing and selling knockoff purses on the streets. This is fine, until the police begin cracking down after its discovered that some of the hawkers are selling drugs on the side. On top of all these problems, he is diagnosed with cancer, and only has a few months left to live. Oh, and he has the ability to communicate with the dead, and is haunted by visions of those who have died.
All of the above is only what happens in the first hour of this two-and-a-half hour film. The film is punishing, as you can imagine sitting through 150 minutes of someone else's misery. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing: there are plenty of great films that never have a feel-good moment (No Country for Old Men is a good example. Or how about Black Swan, anyone?). The talent behind the film is first rate: I know I'm in a minority here, but I really enjoyed Gonzalez-Inarritu's last film, Babel. He's a talented director, with a gift for crafting images that are equal parts disturbing and fascinating. His handheld work in this film makes Barcelona look like a gritty underworld where everyone's fighting just to survive; he paints the city as the equivalent of Martin Scorsese's New York. And Javier Bardem completely earned his Oscar nomination (and Best Actor prize at Cannes) for this role: he's magnetic, giving us passing glimpses at the vulnerability under Uxbal's hard exterior. Bardem makes it obvious that this man is just doing his best with what he's been given, and he keeps the film from becoming completely drowned in depression by providing a healthy dose of heart and humanism.
The problem with Biutiful, and what keeps it from being a great film, is that its very, very busy. This is the first feature film that Gonzalez-Inarritu has made without writer Guillermo Arriaga, working instead with a screenplay written by himself, Armando Bo, and Nicolas Giacobone. But its obvious that he and Arriaga share the same interest in interconnected stories, as this film includes various subplots involving both a Senegalese hawker who's deported, leaving his wife and kid in Spain to live with Uxbal, and a pair of gay Chinese men who run the sweatshop where the fake purses are made. That means that over the course of the film, these two stories show up, usually in relation to Uxbal, but sometimes as stand-alone scenes. But so little time is given to them that there's never an emotional connection made with them, even though the film obviously wants us to have one. There's no reason to care about these characters, and as a result, the film drags on way too long, attempting to be a smaller-scale Babel and failing. The supernatural elements of the film, too, don't make sense until the end of the film, but they're so sparse and inconsequential that the end doesn't have nearly the impact that it wants to have.
The film's probably the best-known of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, but having only seen this and Greece's Dogtooth, I certainly prefer the latter, and can't really see Mexico winning its first Oscar for this. That's not to say that Biutiful isn't a good film; it has its deep flaws, but its still worth checking out, if for no reason other than Bardem.