The films of Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel) have never quite sat right with me. Although he has the ability to weave together multiple storylines and characters in seamless and intimate ways, his need to create the absolute worst possible scenario at almost every turn leaves me incredibly frustrated. Perhaps this has been because it seems impossible that the absolute worst could happen to every one of his characters. This is part of what makes his new film, Biutiful, devastating, incredible, and his finest work to date.
There is a small set of characters centred on one man and his troubles, and those troubles are terrible and yet believable. Anchoring this film is remarkable Javier Bardem, who with this film proves himself as one of the finest actors of his generation. He plays Uxbal, a working class man living in a dingy apartment in Barcelona with his two young children. He makes a living coordinating the often-illegal work of recent immigrants: Africans who sell counterfeit merchandise on the streets, and Chinese who work in the small factory that makes the goods. Uxbal is also dying of cancer, with only a few months to live. He doesn’t tell anyone this, but instead continues to hold his life together by a few shaggy threads. He is a good father to his children, whose mother is bipolar and sleeping with his brother. He is not cruel or manipulative to the immigrant workers, but cutting corners on their survival leads to their destruction.
Bardem is carrying the film on his shoulders, but he shifts that weight to Uxbal’s efforts to hide his illness while struggling to create a decent environment. Uxbal knows his time is short; he knows that his children’s lives will likely fall apart without him. The camera stays on Uxbal for almost the entirety of the film. Innaritu has a few moments of a subplot, a love affair between the head of the factory and one of his henchmen, but this is annoying and unnecessary.
By focusing on Uxbal, González Iñárritu slowly sinks through each layer of this single person; it is far more satisfying than the constant shift between narratives of his past films. It is rare in film to be given the opportunity to know one character so intimately. This is achieved not only through the narrative, but through González Iñárritu’s signature handheld camera shots, and the strange intimacy of the doorway shot scale, allowing the viewer to be a kind of voyeur into Uxbal’s most private moments. When the camera settles on Uxbal’s face, Bardem expresses the character’s huge responsibilities through the movement of his eyes. He has allowed the character to come in this doorway and settle through his entire body, in the hunch of his shoulders as he walks, and even his hands as his gives a precious stone to his children. Instead of perhaps imposing a script upon multiple actors, Innaritu simply follows where Bardem takes Uxbal and the film. The intimacy of the film belies its length, which even at 2 ½ hours, hardly seems enough time to understand this complex and deeply flawed man.