Life isn't quite so beautiful in Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest Spanish drama, 'Biutiful.' In fact, the film journeys through the uglier, grimier underbelly of human existence, following the lives of strangers struggling to survive but ultimately fail to move beyond the squalor they call home. They are interrelated by chance and circumstance intersecting each other at pivotal moments, a signature style of an Iñárritu production, except these strangers know each other from the start. Normally, the streets of Barcelona are stunning and handsome, teeming with laughter and life. But through the eyes of Iñárritu, these same streets are bleak and cruel, caught in a dispiriting air of hopelessness and decay.
Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a petty criminal working as a middleman between a Chinese sweatshop that makes knockoff purses and the African immigrants who sell the merchandise on the streets. He also makes extra cash selling his telepathic ability of speaking with the dead to bring comfort to loved ones. At home, he is the father of two children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella), doing what he can to provide them with a sense of normalcy and protect them from their mentally unstable mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez). In the end, he's simply a man forced to witness the world he created quickly fall apart after learning he has developed terminal cancer.
Bardem is always a reliable actor, delivering convincing and engrossing performances in pretty much everything he's involved. And in 'Biutiful,' it is no different, giving it his all as a vulnerable man conflicted by his various roles in light of imminent death. It's a powerful portrayal where Bardem carries the emotional weight and turmoil of his character on his face, and the dialogue is mostly him trying to reason and justify a guilty conscious. If the film's misspelled title is any indication, Uxbal overworks himself to find meaning in his life, to make something beautiful out of the filth and debris surrounding him. But as his grimy, deteriorating flat reveals, the man is consistently falling short of his goal.
Iñárritu is also a reliable and dependable filmmaker (in my view, at least), maintaining order and logic in complicated intelligent plots about people with serious baggage. This is his fourth feature-length film in a career spanning just over fifteen years, and it's another engagingly stylized production of grim realism, richly embossed in a melancholic aesthetic that is as hauntingly somber as it is strangely inspiring. Iñárritu does brilliantly in closely following the desperate lives of his characters, making them very much human in how they respond to a harsh, unforgiving world and easily winning our sympathies. Sadly, the film is far from perfect amid all its beauty, originality and creativity.
Co-written with newcomers Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, Iñárritu, it seems, might have overreached himself with 'Biutiful,' ultimately failing to deliver on what the narrative promises. Clocking in at 148 minutes, the film feels its length. After a while, one comes out of the story overburdened, much like Uxbal, by the other emotionally-wrought subplots. If there are any thoughts or concerns within the plot on issues of mortality, remorse, redemption or spirituality, it is unfortunately lost and buried among the movie's dismal tone and oppressively grave outlook. Granted, the film is meant as a sad melodrama — and it succeeds — but after the 100-minute mark, it's overstaying its welcome a bit.
Still, what makes 'Biutiful' a good film and worth watching is the stunning performance of Bardem. He is the center and heart of the entire story, an actor that captivates viewers and keeps them invested. Iñárritu's stylized direction, too, leaves a lasting impression, drawing us closer to the drama without really feeling as if someone is plucking at the heartstrings. The two men complement each other well, delivering a beautiful, lyrical tale on the uglier side of life.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate Films Home Entertainment brings Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'Biutiful' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD50 disc. It's housed inside a blue eco-case with a cardboard slipcover and matching cover art. At startup, viewers can watch a series of skippable trailers before being greeted by a standard menu selection, full-motion clips and music.
Iñárritu's 'Biutiful' debuts onto Blu-ray with a highly-detailed and visually striking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode which adds to the narrative's daunting atmosphere.
Alternating between 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 aspect ratios, the freshly-minted transfer reveals life-like textures in facial complexions, exposing every pore and minor blemish in the faces of actors. From the exteriors of city streets to the small pieces of furniture indoors, background information is clearly visible. Viewers can make out the precise, distinct lines in the bricks of buildings outside while poorly-lit interiors display the dinginess and filth of a character's living conditions. Colors are not all that vibrant, which is likely intentional, but they are cleanly rendered and accurate. Contrast is spot-on and brilliant with crisp whites and a good depth of field. Black levels could be a tad deeper, but overall, they are strong and generally on target, making this a beautiful high-def presentation.
'Biutiful' also arrives with an impressive DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which gives the dour movie a spark of life.
This is a front-heavy presentation with a surprisingly wide and expansive soundstage. Imaging is quite convincing at conveying a sense of presence and space, even when there's not much going on inside many of these tightly-packed rooms. However, the little bits of action heard are delivered intelligibly and with good movement between the channels. Dialogue, unfortunately, is somewhat of a drawback as intimate, whispered conversations can be difficult to make out in several spots.
The rest of the lossless mix delivers the goods with a lovely and terrifically detailed dynamic range, perfect for the amazing guitar-inspired score of Gustavo Santaolalla. Every instrument and pluck of the string is flawlessly heard and distinguishable, aided by a weighty and persuasive low end. The surround speakers are mostly reserved for mild atmospherics, but the music also bleeds into the background, immersing the listener into the story's melodrama. All in all, this is splendid high-rez track for such an emotionally wrought film.
For a new release, Lionsgate doesn't offer an extensive collection of supplements, but they are a decent watch nonetheless.
Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'Biutiful' is a bleak and somber journey through the otherwise beautiful and energetic streets of Barcelona. The plot is emotionally dense and grave, which can become rather cumbersome after a while. But with Iñárritu's brilliant direction and Javier Bardem's powerful performance, the film still makes for an impressive and engaging watch. The Blu-ray debuts with a terrific audio and video presentation, but comes with a surprisingly wanting assortment of supplements. Overall, it's a good package for Iñárritu admirers.