Monday, June 13, 2011
I watched this on the plane a few weeks ago. It's not the best environment to watch a film, admittedly, but I was pleased to get the chance to see it because I came across one of the screenwriters on another forum a while back and I was curious to see what the film was like.
I suppose my reactions are mixed. Javier Bardem (who played Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, of course) is simply stunning. It is an extraordinary performance from an actor who has a mesmerising screen presence. He plays a man who is dying of cancer. If I'm honest, the depiction of the cancer's ravages is wholly unconvincing, seeming to consist almost exclusively of making him feel tired. The truth is a lot grottier and grittier than that. But nonetheless, Bardem invested his character with a stunning depth of emotion.
My main difficulty with the film is that it is simply so unremittingly bleak. There is no let-up. A couple of scenes display a relative lightness, most notably the one when the family are reunited and eating around the dinner table; but overall the film offers no escape from the brutality of life in modern-day Barcelona. This is the sort of critique of modernity that allows for no redeeming qualities. We just have greed and corruption and pain and death, and whenever goodness does break out - Bardem's character is symbolic of that - it fails to achieve any lasting impact. There is a school of thought that seems to revolve around the notion that everything to do with modern life is vile, and Biutiful comes close to inhabiting that territory.
One final observation which struck me concerns Cormac McCarthy. I know the screenwriter in question is a reader of McCarthy, and it shows in this film, in the bookends (filmends?) in which Bardem's character, Uxbal, has a spiritual/mystical experience. I'm afraid these don't work at all for me. They are clunky and out of sympathy with the rest of the film. The idea is alluded to in a few scenes, notably in the discussion with the old woman about the spirits of the dead, but the climax, in which Uxbal's father is "going on before" into another realm, like Sheriff Bell's father in No Country For Old Men, feels contrived. The scenes at the beginning and end are trying to turn the film into a theological/philosophical analysis of "the beyond", the realm outside our human comprehension. That's okay, I have no problem with that; but that is not what the rest of the film is about.