Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Submitted by Mexico: Inarritu’s Biutiful

He is a Spanish ghost whisperer. It is not a scam, Uxbal really believes he can sometimes reach the very recently deceased. Unfortunately, he knows he will soon be joining their ranks, but he is not ready to go in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful (trailer here), Mexico’s official submission for best foreign language Academy Award consideration, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Ironically, Uxbal’s second sight is his only business on the up-and-up. His main employment involves smuggling and concealing illegal laborers from China. He kids himself into thinking they are working to build a better life for themselves in Spain, even trusting Li, a nurturing Chinese worker, to sit for his daughter Ana and son Mateo. As it happens, he has other things to distract him from their slave-like conditions, like the cancer eating away at him.

Uxbal might not be perfect, but he is a far better parent than his estranged floozy wife, Marambra. Understandably, securing his children’s future preoccupies him, until tragedy inevitably strikes, leaving him profoundly shaken.

Biutiful is not exactly what one might call a happy film. Visually though, it is often quite striking, with Iñárritu (previously on Oscar’s radar with Babel) adroitly mixing modest doses of subtle magical realism into a grittily naturalistic world. In its own way, Biutiful is actually a deeply moral film as well, clearly suggesting karma can be a real infernal boomerang. It is also somewhat ironic to see such a bitterly tragic story about “undocumented workers” set in Spain, which has not exactly carried the EU economy in recenmt years. Indeed, Iñárritu paints a harsh portrait of Spanish society, suggesting it is corrupt and exploitative in no uncertain terms.

However, though logic may not be an unfailingly human trait, there are times when Biutiful’s characters make decisions that truly exasperate all remnants of patience. Granted, they have a host of issues, but there is a lot of self-destruction and self-contempt on display. Such behavior combined with the abject meanness of the environment and the constant presence of death makes the film quite a draining experience.

Javier Bardem’s Oscar buzz is certainly justifiable, following his best actor honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. As Uxbal, he truly looks like remorse personified right from the start and he only deteriorates from there. Yet, his on-screen work is thoroughly credible each step of the way, rather than an indulgence in showy, clip-reel acting. Likewise, young Hanaa Bouchaib also modulates her performance as Ana quite well, while in a small-ish supporting role, Lang Sofia Lin is truly haunting as poor (even by Spanish or Mexican standards) Li.

Biutiful is certainly technically accomplished film, featuring a very fine turn from Bardem. Yet, aside from its rather grim sow-what-you-reap implications and a legitimately touching framing device, the film does not leave viewers with much, after demanding plenty. Still, that is not nothing. Given the extent Iñárritu’s colleagues have championed Biutiful, it is probably a favorite for the best foreign language Oscar, but it is not likely to duplicate the audience reach attained by recent winners, like The Secret in Their Eyes and The Lives of Others. Recommended for hardy cineastes, Biutiful opens tomorrow (12/29) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.