Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film, Biutiful, survives on the quality of its performances but suffers under the morose weight of Iñárritu’s bleak worldview. It is not a surprise that Biutiful is obsessed with the darker side of life—after all, this is from the same director that created Babel and 21 Grams. Yet it remains a surprise that Iñárritu’s direction fails to actually believe in what it’s saying; though the film seeks to illustrate the personal redemption and spiritual acceptance of its protagonist, its uplifting moral is beaten down by Iñárritu’s apparent desire to fill the film with as much awfulness as possible.
Biutiful tells the story of Uxbal, a father of two who makes his living as a middleman organizing work for illegal immigrants in Barcelona. Uxbal is also able to speak to the recently deceased, passing their final messages to those left behind, a task for which he reluctantly accepts payment. The film follows Uxbal as he comes to terms with his impending death, trying to prepare himself, his estranged bipolar wife, and his children for what is to come.
Unfortunately, Iñárritu’s direction seems to work against the narrative thrust of the film; as Uxbal accepts his mortality and attempts to leave behind a positive legacy, the film becomes more focused on the horrors of death. Halfway through the film the viewer has seen Uxbal urinate bloody urine (multiple times), a close-up of a decaying corpse, and an image of Bardem’s wasted figure wearing a diaper in the shower. All of these horrible images undercut Iñárritu’s narrative of redemption and acceptance.
The film sustains itself on the strong performances of its two leads, Javier Bardem and Maricel Álvarez. Javier Bardem provides the perfect mix of darkness and light in his portrayal of Uxbal. His portrayal is earnest, and it is hard to imagine any other actor so skillfully portraying a man decaying physically while strengthening spiritually. His performance is matched only by Maricel Álvarez’s portrayal of his bipolar wife, Marambra. Álvarez, a well-known performer in Argentina, shines in her first film performance. Her portrayal of Marambra is rich and complicated, and not the caricatured representation of bipolarity often portrayed on screen. She does more than hold her own against the raw power of Bardem’s Uxbal. It is unfortunate that such outstanding performances are drowned by Iñárritu’s melancholic direction. It’s perhaps more unfortunate that Iñárritu seems to have drowned his own message under the weight of his telling it.