Posted February 6, 2011 by William Dunmyer in Uncategorized

Biutiful: Pointless Exercise in Depiction of Misery

“Biutiful” has the look and feel of a major work of art but none of the content. It’s the kind of film that a former artist would produce, someone who used to create genuine art and now can only churn out hollow imitations of it. The window dressing of art is there (great cinematography, acting, editing), but the substance (a great story) is not.

Director and co-writer Alejandro Inarritu (“Babel,” “21 Grams”) seems to be drifting in the same direction as a lot of filmmakers around the world today: they want to be cinematographers, not filmmakers. They focus on the look of a film, not the content. Someone has to remind them that films are not just compilations of great-looking shots.

Javier Bardem does a superb job in “Biutiful,” more than deserving his Oscar nomination as Best Actor. But the film does not deserve its nomination as Best Foreign-Language Film. The nominations and wins in the Foreign-Language Film category have been so incomprehensible the past few years that it is reasonable to suspect that corruption has crept in. Are foreign producers having to buy their way into that category?

“Biutiful” is set in a seedy corner of Barcelona where illegal immigrants from Africa and China live in cramped squalor. Bardem plays a lower-class Spaniard who functions as a sort of assistant manager for an operation that includes about 50 illegals who make and sell handbags. His family lives in squalor, too. Every scene in “Biutiful” depicts squalid conditions. Inarritu at times seems to be vying for an award for Most Miserable Depiction of Miserable Conditions. His love affair with squalor is a bit strange.

When the main character is not struggling to keep his workers safe from starvation and deportation, he is trying to provide a normal family life for his two young children. His wife is a basket case, suffering from a host of addictions and what appears to be a touch of mental illness. She occasionally endangers the children, so Bardem’s character is trying to raise them on his own.

Get ready, there’s even more misery in this man’s life: he’s just been diagnosed with late-stage cancer. So he’s also dying! He’s also purchased faulty heaters for his Chinese workers, causing them to be poisoned! The mounting misery starts to become almost funny.

What is Inarritu trying to say with this cavalcade of disaster? I know almost nothing about Inarritu, only that he was raised in Mexico City. But my hunch is that he was raised in relative luxury, seeing desperate poverty all around him. This kind of bipolar upbringing sometimes can produce a deep guilt on the part of the children of the upper classes, where their vision gets as unbalanced as the social environment. When such individuals become artists, they often over-champion the poor and become over-fixated on squalor and penury. Sadly, all the emotion they feel about poverty seldom generates a coherent engagement with the issue. They produce work that is a dense knot of emotion with no real purpose. That’s what “Biutiful” is: a pointless exercise in the depiction of misery.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.