Alejandro Inarritu's Biutiful is emotional cinematic storytelling at its best

Javier Bardem stars in Alejandro Inarritu's 'Biutiful'. Picture: Supplied
Javier Bardem stars in Alejandro Inarritu's 'Biutiful'. Picture: Supplied

In between his extraordinary first feature Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch) in 2000 and back-to-back Oscars for Best Director with Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015), Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Inarritu made a film that's been much forgotten: Biutiful (2010), starring Javier Bardem.

For me it's Inarritu best work: an earthy and altogether more poetic film than the cerebral Birdman and far more sophisticated and emotionally layered than the linear epic The Revenant.

Ten years on, it's a hidden gem - available to be streamed on SBS On Demand - and well worth a viewing for the stunning cinematography, Inarritu's fascination with multi-narrative storytelling, and Bardem's award-wining performance.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a hustler who lives in a grimy apartment in Barcelona with his two children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella).

Separated from his bi-polar wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), Uxbal makes a living from the city's thriving black market in fake luxury goods. He's a middleman, operating between Chinese entrepreneur Hai (Taishen Cheng) who runs an illegal sweatshop, and African street sellers who risk deportation selling the goods on busy street corners.

If all this sounds rather prosaic, Uxbal also has a more spiritual line of work: he's a special kind of psychic, sought out by poor Catholics to secure messages from relatives who've recently died.

Javier Bardem is perfectly cast in Alejandro Inarritu's 'Biutiful'. Picture: Supplied

Javier Bardem is perfectly cast in Alejandro Inarritu's 'Biutiful'. Picture: Supplied

To provide yet another layer to the narrative, the cemetery where Uxbal's father is interred is to be demolished, with Uxbal and his brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) having to work out what to do with the body and the money they will receive in compensation.

With all this as the backdrop, the story - Uxbal's journey - starts when he is diagnosed with cancer.

Some critics found the film gloomy and depressing, and certainly there's some tough territory that the narrative covers. It's about death, and death is everywhere - if only poetically symbolised through the silent black moths that collect on the ceiling of Uxbal's apartment.

But it's also about a father's love, about a journey of understanding, and about the strange beauty that's hidden in urban squalor - if only you could look at the everyday like cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who also filmed The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman).

Inarritu has commented in interviews that the film invites you to travel to emotional places that you don't usually visit or would rather not.

Bardem, playing Uxbal as a flawed but deeply compassionate soul, takes you there gently, along the way visiting the depths of despair and the sublime joy that comes from small moments with family.

The rewards of this film are not at the level of plot - easily seen as sad and hopeless - but in that place where something altogether more sensory occurs.

Inarritu has the sublime ability to render beautiful everything here: from the warm interiors of shabby flats with city lights winking in the distance, to a bizarre and alienating nightclub that Uxbal experiences as if in a dream of hell.

On his journey, Uxbal finds guides to help him. They are all female, and none is more important than Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the wife of one of the Senegalese street-sellers, and a calm, caring, moral force.

Inarritu developed the idea for four years with Bardem in mind for the lead role. He shot the film, with many amateurs playing opposite Bardem, in chronological order, to make the emotional journey easier for everyone.

Alvarez - in her first screen role - is electric as Marambra, Uxbal's wife. She's a deeply troubled, passionate and exasperating character, as contradictory as the city of Barcelona.

The two child actors who fill out this little family are also extraordinary: nine-year-old Ana and seven-year-old Mateo are fragile characters, yet able - as children can - to absorb the emotional blows that come with life on the unstable fringes.

But it's Bardem who holds everything together. This is, like Inarritu's so-called "Death trilogy" (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel), a multi-narrative story, but it has Uxbal at its centre, a man in crisis who links everyone to all others and who feels he is holding everything together.

But when you finally realise where your journey's heading, you just have to let go.

The story is very loosely inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which Akira Kurosawa also used as material for his acclaimed movie Ikiru (1952) about a middle-aged bureaucrat searching for meaning after discovering he is dying.

Inarritu updates the telling with spectacular production design from Brigitte Broch (who worked on Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge) and a sublime score from Oscar winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

Inarritu's film deserves as much recognition as both its predecessors: it is emotional cinematic storytelling at its very best.

This story Emotional storytelling at its best first appeared on The Canberra Times.