Saturday, 5 February 2011

biutiful (d iñárritu; w iñárritu, armando bo, nicolas giacobone)

Back in the cinema. Lights dimmed. Big screen. Ten pounds. Three hundred pesos uruguayos. Having experienced cinema within a purely digital form (casi) of late, this was a return to the old routine. There's another conversation to be had about the merits or demerits of how you watch cinema, and what this implies for the cinematic form, but that's a conversation for another day.

One thing Iñárritu has shown no fear of within his career, for better or for worse, is the potential of cinematic narrative. Oddly, I now remember sitting with Ana's niece at one point in 2009 in San Jose, watching a pirated version of the Japanese club scene in Babel and enjoying it for 20 minutes before retiring. There's another club scene in Biutiful, Inarittu likes a bit of bling, and this is also well filmed. In isolation it would make for a compelling sequence. Biutiful has a whole range of isolated sequences which stand out as bravura filmmaking. The opening; the first scene where we meet Marambra; the arrest of the Africans. Among others. Unfortunately for Inarittu, the real art of cinema is not merely the creation of remarkable moments, but how those remarkable moments are then strung together. This is where one wonders if Arriaga's true talent was understanding Inarittu's limitations. A fractured narrative papers over the narrative cracks in a way a linear one cannot. Biutiful is the work of a talented filmmaker, but all the same a filmmaker who doesn't know how to edit.

As a result, in spite of Bardem's remarkable performance, (finally persuading me that he's more than just a craggy face), Biutiful sags in too many places. When the film's central tenet is that the leading character has cancer and will die, it's probably going to be grim. I enjoy a grim film more than your average punter, but even for me this was pushing it. Furthermore, there's something about Inarittu's flair as a filmmaker that seems counter-productive for the material. Although the narrative is grim, the style of the film isn't. There are too many sexy moments. Even the club scene, which should be a kind of descent into the underworld, feels lush and eminently watchable. There's also too many seemingly clever touches which aren't really developed and smack of "Script Development". That Bardem's modern day saint should happen to talk to the dead; that the Chinese sweatshop owner happens to be gay; these details feel like add-ons, the gilding of the lily.

It's tempting to say that Inarittu has cooked his goose as filmmaker, that he peaked with his debut, and its been glamour and downhill ski slopes ever since. I'm not sure that's true. In twenty minute chunks he's about as good as it gets in terms of dynamic, visceral film-making. He just needs to find the right writer to help him string these episodes into a functioning narrative. And learn how to edit.


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