When Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu followed Babel (2006) with Biutiful (2010), his first Spanish-language film since the acclaimed Amores Perros (2000), he knew exactly what he was getting into — only now, as if reluctantly, are (some) U.S. theaters screening the film.
“The language can already be an obstacle, especially among cultures that are not used to reading subtitles or seeing themselves in other `types of` people,” he said in Spanish from Mexico City. “They have to see people like themselves on the screen in order to understand anything. It’s hard for them to accept that the world exists beyond their own culture. But this movie has an extra obstacle: it touches a deeper, more human subject matter. When you add these obstacles you know that you’re reducing your market.”
But he went on and filmed the movie that he wanted, and Javier Bardem won the Best Actor award at the Cannes (shared with Italian Elio Germano for La Nostra Vita), while the movie earned a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at last Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards (it lost to Danish director Susanne Bier’s In A Better World).
“When you give a kid tons of sugar, he accumulates so much carbohydrates that he becomes addicted to sugar, and if something doesn’t have as much sugar, it’s tasteless to him,” he said. “Ninety percent of the film industry is targeted to 10- to 14-year-old kids. And in the name of entertainment, brutal atrocities have been committed.”
By contrast, his movies present an unpalatable, unsettling vision of reality with such intensity that some of his critics have accused his films of being depressing and manipulative. Biutiful is no exception.
“The movie exposes, in fact, a very light reality compared with the real miseries and tragedies that exist in the world,” he said. “But people have lost that emotional muscle you need to face those realities not dealt with in mainstream cinema. There is a sort of stereotypical film reality and, when you break that reality, people don’t feel safe; they enter an unstable territory.”
And that is precisely where González Iñárritu comes in — he catches you with your pants down. His movies make you feel uncomfortable. You’re on pins and needles, at the mercy of characters immersed in calamity after calamity, but you’re too paralyzed or charmed to go anywhere. As one Spanish critic put it, González Iñárritu “can make shit look beautiful.” And his two partners in crime since the very first film (a third, Guillermo Arriaga, no longer writes for him) are Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and two-time Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla.
“Gustavo’s contribution is always magnificent. He finds the character’s backbone with very few notes, textures, and elements. And Rodrigo has great clarity and a powerful idea of what beauty is, but always subordinated to drama. Just like Gustavo, he understands what the character needs and is able to translate that with brushstrokes of light. I think this is his best work ever, because it’s his most lyrical and poetic.
“So come see Biutiful, don’t be afraid. A 30-minute newscast is scarier than a movie full of humanity.” •