Mexico Spain (147 mi) 2010 d: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Not sure who would actually enjoy sitting through such a grim and depressing movie like this, where from start to finish the film is drenched in wretched miserablism, becoming so enamored with its own wearying morbidity that it just feels pathetic. Gone is former screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and gone is the criss-crossing narrative style, often crossing back and forth in time until meeting mysteriously at some designated point. This time the director wrote the screenplay along with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacabone, but there are still multiple storylines all connected together by a single character, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), who is seen in nearly every shot of this film. Set exclusively in the seediest neighborhoods in Barcelona, the only side we’re allowed to see, you can almost feel the sweat and grime as you watch this film, which is not afraid to show him pissing blood, perhaps the image of the film, shown repeatedly as we soon learn he’s dying of prostrate cancer and has only a few months to live. Yet he’s tenuously connected to two young children who have problems of their own but need him desperately, as their parents are separated with a mother (Maricel Álvarez) who is bipolar and refuses to take her medication, so she’s completely irresponsible, hasn’t a clue how to be a parent, as she frequently leaves them alone to pursue her own prurient interests. So Uxbal has custody of the kids, but he’s also responsible for running several operations involving illegal workers, a Chinese sweatshop that actually locks the workers into the factory at night, while during the day men are sent to a construction site, though they know nothing about construction, while Uxbal also pays off the cops so illegal African street vendors (selling the goods made by the Chinese) won’t get hassled. So, like BABEL (2006), there’s still a multilingual storyline, with different color subtitles to reflect which culture (Spanish – white, Chinese – blue, African – yellow).
One immediately thinks of the Dardenne brothers LA PROMESSE (1996), using the same gritty style, also fond of the use of hand held cameras, but they approach the subject with near documentary precision, exploring the social strata of the world of illegals who work in exchange for a place to stay. González is less interested in exposing the plight of illegals, but simply uses it as a device to make Uxbal’s world more harrowing, as in his demanding life he has to constantly be answering to dozens of different people all at the same time, all suffering in emergency crisis mode, where he has to immediately fix the problems and placate the owners and the police. He has to be all things to all people, and in this way, reiterate the director’s theme of global interconnectedness, which is present in every one of his films. Here, however, the focus is on what happens when one of those connections is about to die and disconnect, continually stressing how this reverberates backwards, making everyone else’s life more difficult. González then shamelessly piles on the difficulties, one after the other, where Uxbal is running around like a man possessed, but running out of steam, where after awhile, the problems are so insurmountable he can’t even answer his cell phone anymore, as he hasn’t the human ability to be everywhere at once. And did we mention, Uxbal also has the ability to commune with the dead, who he sees sitting in chairs next to their recently deceased bodies, or sometimes hanging from the ceiling staring at him, while moths or butterflies are also collecting in the corner ceiling above Uxbal’s bed, a reminder of his own impending demise.
If Hollywood has to continually increase the volume and up the frantic pace of nonstop demolitions to keep the fanboys happy, art films in turn must wrestle with the idea that the only unexplored territory is uncovering yet more layers of human misery. Remember the off-beat film DESPERATE CHARACTERS (1971) – well worth seeing if only to see a different side of actress Shirley MacLaine? The film was a realistic portrait of unhappy people trying to hang onto their lives with a quiet dignity, yet when it came out critics hated the film, calling it “relentless misery,” and that film only explored the internal dead zones of a dried up marriage. Imagine what they would have had to say for a movie as relentlessly downbeat as BIUTIFUL? Javier Bardem won a Best Actor nod at Cannes for his performance here, which feels a bit like Ryan Gosling in BLUE VALENTINE (2010), as both give huge performances in poorly made films that struggle for plausibility. The problem here is that this doesn’t feel any different than the director’s previous films, like he keeps making the same film over and over again, though here the presence of death is more pronounced, heard in an eerie sound design that becomes jarring at times, where Uxbal is on the precipice between the living and the dead, and there are surrealist dreamlike touches that are used to portray the world of the dead. More importantly though, despite the dire gloom, it’s hard to make sense of the pervading confusion in Uxbal’s life as he’s living it, spreading himself so thin, always getting his hands dirty, crawling around in the muck where his best efforts to carry the world on his shoulders are continually thwarted, as if by divine hand, where all he has to show for himself is a man with good intentions drowning in a sea of utter futility.