Alejandro González Iñárritu is a genuinely exciting filmmaker. His first three features – Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel – were bold and ambitious works, achieving grand emotional effect by the intersection of multiple non-chronological storylines. Some found this approach tiring and his broad themes overly worthy; I was always too compelled by the richness of his visuals and the sheer energy of his camera to care either way.
Biutiful is also big and complex, but in a new way. As if in direct reaction to his critics, Iñárritu has ditched his previous screenwriter and composed a piece in which one character is on camera for almost the entire running time. This is Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem: a downtrodden single father from the rough part of Barcelona who discovers he has terminal cancer and attempts to ‘sort out his business’ during his final days, in order to leave his family some hope for the future.
In its depiction of an multicultural, multilingual city underbelly, at times Biutiful resembles an episode of The Wire, without the wit. In other instances, where gritty authenticity is gently blended with moments of ‘magical realism’, it is reminiscent of Audiard’s A Prophet. But in the end Iñárritu has a rich and confident cinematic language of his own (he loves those circling flocks of birds) which carries you through his story however overwrought the plot or sweeping the themes.
Much of this film’s press has focussed on the coming together of Iñárritu and Bardem, two heavyweights of Spanish-speaking cinema – and indeed Bardem is brilliant, bringing the perfect balance of wisdom and vulnerability to his everyman character. His big, abrasive face is compelling to watch, charming and loving in the scenes with his children and truly anguished when let down by his errant, unstable wife.
But real magic here occurs in another collaboration: between director and his brilliant composer/musician Gustavo Santaolalla. This film’s score is mesmerising – subtle, atmospheric strings, twisted electronic twangs and gorgeous acoustic guitar – and Santaololla’s compositions never fail to lift Iñárritu’s scenes into a different emotional dimension. Here’s an older example to give a flavour: the haunting theme from 21 Grams. They’re the perfect pair.