Biutiful is in the eye of the beholder, in this case one who is willing to appreciate the visceral realities of urban squalor: the confined quarters, the peeling walls, the stained sinks, and the people who toil there. The struggle for survival is as palpable as the ever-nearing presence of death. This is not the customary landscape of majesty, but one that director Alejandro González Iñárritu attends with such care and detail that we are left with an undeniable aesthetic — a wasteland artistry.
Iñárritu smears the image with greasy tones of feverish aqua marines and burnt yellows. The viewer feels more in Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg than modern Barcelona. Biutiful is filmed with a delicate handheld that is neither too shaky nor too steady, as if viewing events while constantly scratching one’s head. And scratch you may, as the narrative wanders through its labored running time. Pacing and cohesion have never been a strength of Iñárritu; ambiguity is his tempo. Allowing his trademark, three-prong storyline to gestate and flourish — that’s the point.
The narratives are not so exclusive as in Iñárritu’s past efforts and so require less contrivance to weave them together. A Chinese man running a sweatshop, a family of illegal immigrants from Senegal who sell his knockoffs on the street, these are just added pressure on the already downtrodden protagonist — Javier Bardem, as the compassionate go-between. He bribes police to keep the operation afloat. He works deals to keep the workers warm in their dungeon-style basement. He struggles to feed his own two children, to calm his bipolar wife, to appease his playboy brother, and to keep up his own ailing body. None of his efforts do much good, but it is not success that interests Iñárritu, it is the struggle. His heroes are the broken ones.
Blurring the thematic edge further is the character’s “gift,” an unexplained ability to contact the newly deceased. Given the proximity to Eastwood’s Hereafter, one might be inclined to draw comparisons, but the results would be spurious. The two films have different intentions, and even in the sense of the paranormal, Iñárritu’s vision is more subtle and nuanced. He weaves the ghostly elements so deftly into the picture that we feel more inclined to suspend our disbelief. The special effects (often involving excellent use of mirrors) are so slight that many viewers may miss them on first viewing. Matching this powerful understatement is Bardem’s performance. He lumbers through his scenes, head down, shoulders askew, looking pained and compressed as the walls tighten. His expressive face accomplishes much with little, revealing a detached worry and guilt.
As regrets pile up, so do the minutes. However, while Iñárritu may amble too far with his plot, he does give us much to appreciate along the way: a frenetic police raid in the middle of downtown Barcelona (exciting in every way The Mechanic is not), the use of differently colored subtitles to designate different languages, an insightful look at family dynamics at mealtime. Ultimately, we are faced with too much integrity. The suffering we are shown is genuine, but it is also relentless. There is no letup. One is left feeling involved, but uncomfortably so.
“What I do requires a certain mindset,” mutters Jason Statham’s rogue-assassin character. But I wonder more about Statham himself. What mindset is required to continue to take on such projects? What mindset is necessary to enjoy these films?
The movie is shot with a grainy, repellent film stock. Every image fizzles as if it were sprinkled with pepper, and the color deviates between creamy orange and sullen blue. This is to indicate that the film is gritty to the core, a picture of uncompromising reality. But the bloated unreality of the action undermines the effect. Filmed in a static, pedestrian style with patchwork editing, the story never surfaces above its clichéd roots: assassin works for killer company, company turns on assassin, assassin kills company. The violence is brutal, shaky, and indecipherable — all collision, no clarity. The targets are kept uniformly unlikable so as to eliminate any glimpse of ethical ambiguity, brought to ludicrous extreme in a deflated torture scene.
Statham takes on the role of mentor to a lost cause with temper issues, another recycled convention. The plot device weighs on the movie more like a tumor than a medal; we are lead to believe all a person need know to become a hitman is how to shred paper targets with a machine gun. Ben Foster — who has brought a considerable degree of gravity to his past performances — is here reduced to the loose cannon, the sidekick. Statham attempts to preserve his rugged, tough-guy persona, but the illusion is undermined by his array of fashionista get-ups: thick-knit cardigan, double-breasted leather car coat (John Varvatos, perhaps?). Statham looks good, but he doesn’t look the part. And, in this case, taking the part was his first mistake.
More of a slice of life than a document — no real beginning or end, just arbitrary depiction. The film centers on the mother and eldest member of a primate family in a French zoo, a thrice-widowed, 40-year-old orangutan. “Same age as your daddy,” one of the unseen spectators comments to her daughter. The brief running time (just over an hour) is devoted exclusively to the apes in their paddock. We are privy to voiceover commentary from a collection of patrons and zookeepers. The only other sound is a melancholy horn, periodically showing up to provide the faintest of score.
As in Nicolas Philibert’s prior work, To Be and to Have, Nénette will spark strong interest only from those working in the field. Both films demonstrate Philibert’s editorial detachment, his laissez-faire voyeurism, but Nénette takes this to a new level of restraint. We see the subject sleep, eat, and rummage in stringy hay while disorganized exposition passes by. The information touches on such subjects as the apes’ behavior, speculation on their thought process, their close relationship to humans, and their variance from other wild primates. But for all its knowledge about the animals, the commentary is no more interesting than an auditory Wikipedia page. Furthermore, the static camera offers no real insight to the subject’s existence or personality.
Beyond observation, the agenda is rather aimless. Perhaps this is the filmmaker’s intention, to replicate the ape’s experience — as one zookeeper calls it, “the quality of her idleness.” In moments without voiceover, the film invites a trance-like appraisal, an idle curiosity. Ultimately, we’re left to contemplate the ethics of captivity and its emotional effect on the creatures we confine for our amusement and education. Philibert addresses this in the commentary, but captures it more subtly through glancing shots of trees swaying beyond a caged window — a distant freedom.
New review in this week’s capsule listings: Every Day.