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Biutiful (2011,Spain)

01/07/2011

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu     Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib

There’s a perception among mainstream cinema audiences that independent, art house cinema is an exercise in self indulgent intellectualism, designed to make normal people feel stupid and an opportunity for cinematic snobs to confirm their elitist self image to themselves and others. Of course, by and large, this is a misconception and there is plenty of scope within the world of indie cinema for accessibility, broad appeal and (perhaps more essentially) good, entertaining films. Inarritu however seems to have based his career on a ten year experiment to prove the first supposition correct. His debut feature, Amores Perros, an anthology piece exploring the interconnected nature of our lives with three different stories hinging on a single event was actually rather good but since then his numerous attempts to recreate this formula have fallen completely flat. Sadly, Biutiful is no different.

It’s core story is actually rather interesting. Uxbal (Bardem) is a single father who has been diagnosed, far too late for anything to be done about it, with prostate cancer. Apart from being involved in low level organised crime Uxbal pays the rent by taking money from grieving relatives in order to commune with the spirits of their dearly departed. The main thread of the story follows him in his final days as he struggles to reconcile his imminent fate with his personal beliefs, his duty as a parent and his responisbilities to those who work with and for him. Once his bipolar, estranged wife (and mother of his children) Marambra (Alvarez) re-enters his life the stage is set for some serious drama.

The problem here is the same problem that brought down his previous films 21 Grams and Babel. It’s insistence on exploring irrelevant ancilliary plot threads and characters bloats the running time to an almost unbearable two and a half hours of excruciatingly slow paced meandering. It feels twice as long. Whenever the story turns an interesting corner, attention is diverted in another direction. Any sense of pace or momentum is completely negated by its lack of focus. When you consider the quality of many of the elements of the film, this is a tragedy. Take the performances for example – Bardem in particular is mesmerising whenever he is on screen, capturing the weight of emotion perfectly. The love/hate dynamic between him and Alvarez is just as powerful. Sadly, this only serves to accentuate the jarring nature of the sprawling narrative as every moment where these actors aren’t on screen feels like a waste.

As beautifully shot as it is, as interesting a setting as the meaner, less tourist friendly streets of Barcelona prove to be, nothing can make up for the fact that it becomes little more than a tedious series of underdeveloped ideas. The scenes where Uxbal experiences echoes of the dead, their spirits lost and afraid are a combination of touching and chilling and feel like they should be developed into something more but this never comes. A lot of time is spent in the company of distant elements of the piracy and people smuggling ring Uxbal is involved in but who really have no bearing on him and his family, at least not in any direct sense of the term. Every minute that isn’t concerned with Uxbal feels like an unnecessary diversion and each of these diversions not only pales into insignificance (in terms of drama) by comparison but also lessens your immersion in the main thrust of the story.

It’s not a complete write off, the central premise was just enough to encourage perseverance and it is several degrees better than say, the execrable 21 Grams but Inarritu’s insistence on this sort of sprawling, borderline anthology storytelling is tedious in the extreme and a perfect example of why there is so much hatred directed towards indie art films from mainstream cinemagoers. It has no hope of escaping it’s creator’s pomposity. There is a sense it exists purely to provoke brow furrowing and chin stroking from the sorts of viewers who would happily ooh and ahh at the naked emperor rather than concede that he wasn’t actually wearing any clothes. In this particular instance, Inarritu’s overblown approach has ruined what could otherwise have been a powerful, emotive film.

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