When Alejandro González Iñárritu decided to follow his 2006 hit Babel with Biutiful, his first Spanish-language film since the breakthrough Amores Perros a decade ago, he knew exactly what he was getting into. According to the Mexican director, some U.S. theaters weren't so sure.
"The language can already be an obstacle, especially among cultures that are not used to reading subtitles or seeing themselves in other people," he says. "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. This movie has an extra obstacle — it touches a deeper, more human subject matter."
But Iñárritu made the movie he wanted to make. Javier Bardem plays a man who has two months to sort out his life. He's dying, and he's seeking redemption from his children and looking for a way to ease his guilty conscience. (The title comes from his daughter's misspelling of the word "beautiful.")
"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," says Iñárritu. "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 done."
Iñárritu's movies — from Amores Perros to 21 Grams to Babel — present an unpalatable, unsettling vision of reality with such intensity that they're often accused 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," says Iñárritu.
"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."
That's precisely where Iñárritu comes in. He wants his movies to make you uncomfortable. You're at the edge of your seat and at the mercy of characters immersed in calamity after calamity, but you're too paralyzed or captivated to look away. As one critic put it, Iñárritu "can make shit look beautiful."
He's had help from the start from Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla, whose mood pieces drive Iñárritu's movies. "Gustavo finds the character's backbone with very few notes, textures, and elements," says Iñárritu. "And Rodrigo has great clarity and a powerful idea of what beauty is, but always subordinated to drama."
Still, despite its obstacles and hurdles, Iñárritu thinks Biutiful is a hopeful and, yes, beautiful movie. "A 30-minute newscast is scarier than this movie," he says. "It's full of humanity."