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Film Club: ‘Biutiful’

A Meditation on Death and Dying

Javier Bardem stars in Alejandro González Iñárritu's

Credit: Liddell Entertainment

Above: Javier Bardem stars in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Biutiful."


The critics of the KPBS Film Club of the Air discuss "Buitiful."


Alejandro González Iñárritu won acclaim for his first feature "Amores Perros." His latest film, "Biutiful" (opening January 28 at AMC Fashion Valley) just nabbed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Javier Bardem. Listen to our KPBS Film Club of the Air discussion.

Iñárritu's films tend to have a Biblical flavor. "Babel" has the most overt Biblical link in it's title as characters around the globe struggle with issues of communication. Then "21 Grams" offered up a tale of guilt and redemption. Now "Biutiful" feels a bit like the Book of Job as Javier Bardem's character seems beset by one tragedy after another. Iñárritu also seems to find something transcendent in his character's suffering, and that too carries a religious overtone.

Iñárritu gained fame for his feature debut "Amores Perros," which relied on a multi-stranded, multi-character plot that came forcefully together in the end. That kind of sprawling narrative has become something of a trademark for the director although he tries to streamline the structure for "Biutiful."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Liddell Entertainment

Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is diagnosed with terminal cancer and must decide how to plan for his young children in "Biutiful."

Rather than focusing on multiple plots and characters of somewhat equal weight, "Biutiful" places Uxbal (Javier Bardem) at the center of the film and lets everything fan out from him. But he leads us to illegal Chinese workers, Senegalese immigrants, sweatshop conditions, low level crime gangs, and a bipolar wife. Add to this that he has an ability to communicate with the dead and that he has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and you have a film with a determined downward spiral. But like Job, Uxbal doesn't really do anything to deserve such a fate. Sure he's a low level criminal but he also has a heart and tries to help others. He also desperately loves his children, which is an endearing trait.

The parts are often better than the whole here though. Iñárritu gives us lovely, aching moments and Bardem is compellingly watchable. Yet when it's all over you feel drained but a bit empty. Iñárritu is good at creating a weighty sense of tragedy but I'm not sure to what end. Is it to see what one man can take before he breaks or how much he can take and still hold onto his humanity? Perhaps, but if that is the director's intent it is still not clear.

In some ways the most interesting aspect of the film is Uxbal's ability to communicate with the dead and the burden that places upon him. This supernatural/religious side plot is similar to the recent Clint Eastwood film "Hereafter," but Iñárritu explores the idea with so much more grace and complexity.

"Biutiful" (rated R for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use, and in Spanish with English subtitles) is an uneven work but Bardem and Iñárritu invest it with a humanity that makes it deeply affecting at times. You can listen to our KPBS Film Club of the Air discussion.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Liddell Entertainment

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. And this is the KPBS film club of the air. My guests are Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, Ander Wright, and we're moving on to movies opening near San Diego. If you would like to tell us and comment about the Oscars, please go on-line, it's Days. The movie we're going to look at now is Biutiful, Javier Bardem stars as a low level mobster in Barcelona who with runs interference between sweat shop owners and the police of but it's his personal life that is really challenging. His ex-wife is mentally ill and he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. So his last weeks of life become a mission to stash away as much money as he can for his two kids. Now, this premise, Anders, sounds pretty darn gloomy. Is it a sad movie?

ANDERS WRIGHT: It certainly was for me. I felt like it was kind of relentlessly grim. Javier Bardem is really, really good in this film. Of and the movie looks terrific. But, you know, he sort of has his fingers in all sorts of different pies of he's working with sweat shop workers and Senegalese street vendors, and everything that he touches, things are just a downer for him basically, and he's dying. And he's terrified of dying, and he's terrified of the world he's gonna leave his kids behind in. And every once in a while, it feels like something good is happening, and more often than not, it seems to back fire in a way that makes things exponentially worse.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Scott, you really liked Biutiful. Why?

SCOTT MARKS: One, I don't find it sad in the least. This is not a film that I would look at as a weepy in any way shape or form. What the director does, he has this knack for turning human tragedy into a means of unification and redemption. And I don't find any -- the sentimentality for me stops in the title. Biutiful, it's misspelled purposely, it's a note that his daughter leaves on the refrigerator for him. That's the only trace of sentiment I find in this film. What I liked in this film, and what Anders and I were talking about after seeing it was the sheer aggressive nature of the film. Most film makers would stop halfway and not see this kinda dark vision all the way through to its tragic conclusion. And I think that's what Enurito does. And that's why I liked this film. I like the fact that it's relentless and it's aggressive. And here is a film that does wind up having a tremendous body count. But I don't want to turn people away from seeing this movie, because I think the film also displays a tremendous degree of sensitivity. There are some very, very playful moment. I've never seen a film where they colored the subtitles where whites Chinese, you know, whatever -- I don't remember the colors now. So there are some playful moments in there as well.

BETH ACCOMANDO: I don't know if I'd call that playful. It's more informational.

MARKS: No, but I mean to sit there and put it in different colors? There was no need to do that.

ACCOMANDO: You didn't like the different colored subtitles in Slum Dog Millionaire.

MARKS: You know, I pushed that film out of the back of my head. Okay. I just find this film so relentlessly depressing and filled with despair that in a crazy way, it entertained me. And I applaud the man for seeing his convictions all the way through to the end.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Beth, what do you think of Biutiful.

ACCOMANDO: I had real mixed feelings about it. I thought Javier Bardem's performance in it was amazing. And there are scenes and elements of the film that I really liked, but at the end, I just somehow disappointed by it. Part of it may be on a certain level, Enurito, I feel like he's doing this kind of multistranded plot, this is it a little more stream lined and a little more focused but I feel like he's kind of relying on certain gimmicks and methods of story telling that I wish he would try something a little more different but there are some wonderful elements on it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is this the sort of a movie where the performance is so compelling that it completely dominates the movie? And even if perhaps you're not compelled by the story, it's the performance that's gonna --

ACCOMANDO: Yes, I wouldn't say that it dominates it in the sense that it's a negative thing. I think that his performance carried you through, so even if there are places or elements of it that you might have problems with like I did, I didn't have any problem watching it. I felt compelled to see it all the way through to the end. And I think there is this sense of a strange kind of redemption at the end for him. But his performance is wonderful. And it was interesting because when I had actually seen this film, it was closer to the time that kitchen here after was coming out, which was the Clint Eastwood film. And in this film too, his character speaks with the dead, but in a very different way than the Matt Damon character did in here after. And in this film, I thought it was much more powerful. And in fact, that was the kind of the element in the story line that interested me more. The way this guy kind of copes with this gift that he has and what he tries to do with it and how it's a burden to him.

MARKS: And he puts in just enough of that to make it work. Where it doesn't dominate it. It isn't like a hoodoo film, and there's one stylistic moment in this film that I couldn't wait to get home and pop in the DVD to see it with my own eyes to make sure that it was real. That's a scene where he's going to someone's house, and he bangs on the door, and no one's home. And as he walks away from the door, his reflection in the door changes. It doesn't match it. It's a computer generated effect. And it's a great visual statement, a great visual way to show where this guy is coming from at this particular time in the movie. And it is so subtle to be almost imperceptible, and when you watch it again, this is how to use computer generated imagery. Not to blow people up, not to graft someone's head on the body of a penguin. This is the way to use it. And I looked at that shot ten times and I -- you hook at it, and it's like, how did you do this? It's just terrific. And the film has a lot of little stylistic choices. So I think it's 23409 just his performance that kept me going, I think it's the direction too.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Anders, you already mentioned that you were heavy that Javier Bardem was nominated for an Oscar in this film. What makes him so good?

WRIGHT: Well, we know he's a terrifically talented actor. We've seen him do so many interesting things over the years. And he won an Oscar a couple of years ago for no country for old men. I feel like his character, Uxbal, has so much to deal with in terms of all of the jobs, in terms of his terror of dying, and knowing what the after life holds because he has this odd little side job of a guy who talks to dead people. In knowing how crazy his ex-wife is. And he really is someone who is able to take all of these things in, and express all of those incredible frustrations of fears, and at the same time being an interesting, believable character. He makes this guy real.

ACCOMANDO: But he also doesn't play it over the top. He's a very naturalistic actor. And like you said, it's very real. I feel like this is a very real character that you're watching. And you feel a lot of compassion for him because he does make you empathize with what he's going 32. But he does it in a kind of subtle way. He his out bursts and he has anger, but even there, there's this nice sort of, I think, under playing that he does.

WRIGHT: One thing that I love that he does in this, anybody who has kids knows that you'll sacrifice anything for your children, but you have moments where you get incredibly frustrated with them [CHECK AUDIO] and he has all of that. And you can also see just how frustrated he is with himself for getting frustrated with that situation. And it's small, and it's subtle, and it feels like real life.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to let everyone know that --

WRIGHT: No, it is not opening there.

MARKS: It's not? They canceled it?

WRIGHT: It's not opening there.

MARKS: Oops.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So that would be fashion valley.

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