By Drew Taylor | The Playlist November 18, 2010 at 4:16AM
When "Biutiful," Alejandro González Iñárritu's searing and deeply-moving (and, granted, at times painfully difficult-to-watch) new film debuted at Cannes this past summer, it was almost universally cut down to size. People said it was too bleak, too hopeless, and no matter how stellar and immersive a performance lead Javier Bardem provided -- and, trust us, it's spectacular; the film's one element that was unanimously praised -- most critics couldn't get behind it (Bardem would go on to win the Best Actor prize in Cannes). Maybe it was the heat stroke, the film festival nature of cramming in four or five films a day, or the looking-for-the-next-big-thing attitude that permeates Cannes, but the film was, at best, unfairly overlooked and, at worst, almost universally derided.
But as the film nears its domestic release, there is a chance that a vocal groundswell of critical adulation could come to the forefront (and a pair of Playlist writers, who recently saw the film stateside, can attest to its profundity). One thing that might help the film is that it's coming in the wake of Clint Eastwood's borderline unwatchable "Hereafter," a plodding, tin-eared exploration of what happens after you die. "Biutiful" covers much of the same thematic ground but does so in a way that feels vital, alive and crucial. It doesn't hurt that well-known filmmakers have rallied behind the film, including Iñárritu's producing partner/buddy Guillermo del Toro, who conducted a hour-and-a-half long Q&A after a recent screening in New York, to Werner Herzog, who did similar duties in Los Angeles. People have been clearly moved by this film that is equal parts passionate, soulful, and yes, at times, emotionally harrowing and dark.
Hopefully, with some additional critical support and more backing from fellow filmmakers, "Biutiful" can find its audience and get the attention it deserves. And no matter how desolate the film may sound, and, trust us, the log line is none-too-cheery, following an aimless underworld drifter (Bardem) and part-time psychic as he deals with his own mortality (he's dying of cancer) and tidying up his mortal life, which includes the wrenching decision about what to do with his children (his wife is psychologically unwell).
Still, Iñárritu said that the miserablist accusations aimed the film are missing the point. "I'm always very shocked that people mention this film as a bleak film or a film about death," Iñárritu told the Playlist in a recent interview. "I want to really at least express myself of what I feel this film is about. And for me this is a film about life."
There's no denying that "Biutiful" is devastating, and circuitous, in its sometimes-wandering narrative, but for the Mexican filmmaker it's all about the the journey; the destination seems to be as equally paramount.
"Some films are just an instant moment, some films are a portrait, some films are a journey, but I put the camera at the end of the road," he said. "So it's a life observed at the end. But it's an homage to life. It's a life that you care about. It's an expression of a simple man in a very complex situation, where a man under the toughest circumstances ever is able to find love, to find forgiveness, to find compassion, to understand the meaning of his own life, and how people feel about him. And that's what I consider to be uplifting, it's an homage to a life that was lived with dignity."
It's the big budget action movies, with dozens of people mercilessly mowed down, that Iñárritu finds more troubling than his relatively simple and humane drama (twinged, tantalizingly, with cryptic supernatural elements). The drama is a deeply-felt piece and you can tell that Iñárritu is also sensitive and attuned to human suffering.
"When I see films when somebody kills twenty or thirty people and nobody fucking cares about any of those lives, they are just shooting, I get depressed," he said. "Those films I find bleak."
Iñárritu remains steadfast in the movie's inherent positivity and when you step back from the picture that might leave you reeling and or emotionally destroyed, it is something worth considering. More than most films, "Biutiful," is a complex picture that one most likely needs to marinate on; you're overwhelmed by the sadness of the characters and the potential pain and suffering in their lives. But the movie is deeper than that, richer too, with this writer still puzzling out what it all means. That experience wasn't much different from what happened at Cannes. The film was dismissed and many moved on to the next screening or review, but its deeply haunting quality burrowed into some people's heads and would not dissipate. While it didn't land stateside distribution immediately and Roadside Attractions eventually acquired the film and producer Mickey Liddell agreed to fund P&A because he "couldn't get the movie out of his head."
"Biutiful" comes out on December 29th in limited release and we encourage you to seek out this dark, but ultimately enriching picture. Before then we'll have more from our conversation with the director, as well as additional reviews closer to release.