Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful (2010) is one of the most affecting films of the 21st Century, which makes me wonder how it could possibly have slipped so silently under the radar. To me, this film is a masterpiece, but I seem to be the only one who thinks so. It got mediocre reviews from critics and has rarely been discussed since its release. Perhaps we have been conditioned to dislike this type of story – I mean depressing character-studies about the terminally ill. To be honest, I never felt depressed during this film. In fact, I would go so far as to call it an optimistic film. Iñárritu has done something remarkable; he has given us an honest story about a man coming to terms with his mortality. What Biutiful lacks in cheeriness it makes up for in unpredictability, intensity and heart. Many other films have tried to express these ideas before, but few have done it so poignantly.
The plot concerns a man in Barcelona who is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. He has no friends and no parents, but he takes care of two children. They are the ones he is concerned about leaving behind. With only a few months to live, Uxbal wanders the city making arrangements for his death and looking for some kind of solace anywhere he can find it.
The film is beautifully shot. There’s a scene near the beginning where some police officers chase a group of street vendors through the streets, and it’s remarkable to watch. Iñárritu is never afraid to let a little chaos into the frame. His shots are not carefully orchestrated, they are frantic and urgent. Even in the quieter moments his camera moves like a referee in a boxing ring – staying as close to the action as possible without actually getting involved.
I want to take a moment to discuss the work of Armando Bó Jr. and Nicolás Giacobone, the writing partners from Argentina who co-wrote the screenplay with Iñárritu. If you don’t know their names by now, you probably should. Biutiful is a triumph of acting and directing, but above all it is a triumph of writing. Bó and Giacobone have crafted one of the best screenplays in recent years. It is a transcendent story, sensitively-told and full of rich, memorable characters. Bó and Giacobone are never tawdry or cheap as writers and their care for the central character is that of a dear friend. Their dialogue is unpretentious even at the height of emotion, which lends the story a kind of grounded poetic realism.
I read these reviews and I get the sense that the critics cannot differentiate between self-indulgent tragedy and just plain drama. Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays that could rival this film for grief. Even more surprising, Biutiful was billed as just a Javier Bardem vehicle, and although he certainly gives a great performance, if you saw the reviews you’d think he was the saving grace in a train-wreck of a film. Not the case. Biutiful is not for the faint of heart, but it’s invigorating stuff, if you’ve got the stomach for it.