Movie Review: Javier Bardem in “Biutiful,” an Early Masterpiece from the Director of “Birdman”

I learned while apprenticing with Russian director Alexander Chirkov that Stanislavsky’s “method” was devised as a means by which less experienced actors could share the stage with their betters without destroying the scene. Such gimmicks as “emotive memory” and “given circumstance” were crutches for the mediocre, not a modus operandi for the masters. In contemporary American film, simple rules of dramatic construction have been laid down for aspiring screenwriters who would be hopeless without a template to follow. An experienced writer understands how form is unique to each piece, arising from content and molded into an unassailable support for the characters, the action, the story, and the themes. In today’s films, content is often grist for the template, rendering each film a mirror of all other films. The art of story-telling has become so debased by this formalism that when a writer goes outside the lines, the poor audience gets lost and shuffles unhappily away. The result of all this is the imminent disappearance of drama from the American film is surely as it has already vanished from the American stage.

The world is fortunate that in certain countries, the writing of scripts remains the province of professionals who have retained the right to take their stories in any chosen direction. The protagonist needs not begin with a goal to be accomplished against which an obstacle is immediately placed and eventually overcome. The first attractive woman who appears on the screen is not destined for ultimate happiness with the leading man. If a gun appears in the first reel, it does not necessarily have to be fired in the final reel. None of this crap has to happen. Hopefully the day will come when American film writers become accomplished enough to smash the templates and get on with the work of the imagination. Until then, we are lucky to have writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s harrowing and lustrous new picture, “Biutiful,” a truly surprising masterpiece that reflects on life while falling bravely into the arms of death.

Javier Bardem has repeatedly proven that he is one of the world’s great actors, but his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Uxbal, a cancer-stricken wretch whose unscrupulous financial weaseling causes more misery than his conscience can bear, while he spends his last days on Earth trying to find a home for his two children where they will be safely tended after his death, assures his place in the pantheon. He wears the part like an albatross, carrying his death as if it were a notorious secret entrusted to him alone. He is a man without enough time to rectify his mistakes, and only enough money in his pocket to offer the thinnest of apologies.

Despite its too frequent shots of Uxbal’s bloody urinations and progressive physical disability, its hopeless portrait of Maramba, his bi-polar whore of a wife who believes more in the ups and downs of her chemical imbalances than the true happiness and sorrows that have touched her family, and a sordid view of the sometimes lethal abuse of Chinese laborers on Spain’s construction sites, “Biutiful” plays like a fireworks display of life as a joyous gift of which its only flaw is that it cannot regenerate itself.

The film opens in luminous mystery, two men in a winter landscape, dialogue with no earthly frame of reference, the final link in the chain of Uxbal’s final days and the first step into an undiscovered country. Much of what we are about to see will be strange, contradictory in the way a reflection sometimes contradicts the object being reflected. Just as the title is a false spelling resulting from erroneous phonetics, “Biutiful” offers up life, not as it is lived, but as it is experienced through faulty, disintegrated senses.

There has never been a shortage of pictures dealing with terminal illness, but even the best of them, from Edmund Golding’s “Dark Victory” (1939) to Francois Ozon’s “Time to Leave,” (2005) conform to rigidly melodramatic plot lines. “Biutiful,” on the other hand, takes us to unexpected places that lose their material dimensions the deeper they are explored. We are left to puzzle over questions ranging from Shakespeare’s “How long will a man lie in the Earth before he rots?” to Consumer Reports’ “How safe are space heaters?” As we follow Uxbal down a road that gets heavier with each step, the line between what is actually happening and what is a remnant from falsified memory becomes less and less distinct. Finally, it doesn’t matter.

Every time the lights go down in the cinema, I am hoping to see something as edifying, elating, mysterious, profound, and cathartic as “Biutiful.” It happens less often that it used to, but as long as movies like “Biutiful” pop up occasionally, there remains every reason to continue going to the movies.

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