Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu's new film Biutiful, which premiered this week in Cannes, begins with a stunningly promising image of a crystal-white forest in the snow. Standing in the snow, Javier Bardem, the protagonist, slides a ring on his beloved's trembling finger, while explaining the tender history of this ring. His father had given the ring to his mother shortly before his abrupt death in exile.
One feels immediately that one is in a "human" universe -- already a good thing given the empty aestheticism of some of the other films featured at Cannes this year (Kitano, Tavernier). Indeed, at the press conference this afternoon, the director pointed out that he himself saw the quality of this film to be its "humanness". In his words: "The film talks about things that are real in comparison to other films that talk about crashes or car chases. My film offers an intimate experience, and intimacy today is provocative as we are so far from each other. Today when you present a drama with emotions, people don't even know how to recognize them."
Yes, it is a human drama, full of "real things," such as corruption, exploitation, family break-up and spiritual confusion. Following the poignant moment in the snow, Bardem plays a man (Uxbal) who deals in the commercial underworld of Chinese sweatshop workers and African immigrant workers, while taking out his anger by banging on a kitchen table at breakfast with his kids. Alternately he groans at his estranged manic sexy wife, who is first introduced spilling a glass of red wine on a naked lover while she stamps on his back in bed.
Bardem's other side-line is cashing in on mourners' grief, as he uses his veritable spiritualist talents to communicate with the recently dead.
The excitement of the film lies in the visual encounter with claustrophobic darkness: the serpentine streets of Barcelona, where Bardem tramps about with a brooding glare, the kitchen ceiling heavy with mold, the sweat-shop crammed with human bodies.
Yet the excitement is tweaked so strongly that the film plods, at times, into overdone melodrama. The lost dark world of this modern Job goes from bad to worse: the Africans get caught, the wife becomes a child abuser, the sweatshop workers end up dumped in the sea. Inarritu and his screenwriter staff seem not to trust the audience to get the emotional punch without heavy handed hints, repeated a number of times, like a refrain scratch on a CD. For example, one powerful scene shows Uxbal's son hiding his bruised face from his father. This same image is milked in a subsequent close-up when the father pulls back the bandaid to see the cut. Similarly, the husband-wife encounters -- compellingly sweet and violent -- become redundant after the umpteenth scene.
Less is more, one would like to say.
One also wonders how Bardem's character--so caring and thoughtfully disturbed--ever got himself into such a moral mess in the first place.
Still the message is moving -- and left some of the audience in tears. We are asked, with Bardem, to learn compassion -- forgive the mad wife, forgive one's own evil ways -- before one is through with this very short life. "My character has to heal himself," Javier Bardem commented with his boyish smile at the press conference. "The only way is love."
"The disease killing the world today is hate," said the director. "Forgiveness might be an answer to this disease. This is the most hopeful of my films."