It's a few years since I saw Rowan Woods' Little Fish in the same 24-hour span as Greg McLean's Wolf Creek and was struck by how much more fear and tension I felt during the former. Admittedly, I remember distracting myself in Wolf Creek with thoughts of camera angles and editing style, but it was my identification with ex-junkie Tracy, played with extreme believability by Cate Blanchett, that made me feel so much.
I was reminded of this when I re-watched Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful, which is currently available at SBS On Demand. For me, like with Little Fish, it is one of those films that embed you in the heart of the character and make you go through what they're going through to such an extent that you feel almost ill with tension. You feel as much as you watch.
From the very first scene there are signs that terrible things are going to happen in Biutiful, and they do, with each new calamity putting more pressure on the central character, the hustler Uxbal, who makes his living from illegal immigrants and from acting as a bridge between the living and the dead. And just as with Blanchett in Little Fish, it's difficult to imagine any actor doing a better job than Javier Bardem at providing a complex and contradictory portrait of someone under immense duress.
Watch the 'Biutiful' trailer:
Iñárritu adds to the intensity by demanding our concentration by making us strain to hear, to see, to understand; but has also said that nobody else could have brought to the character what Bardem brought.
“Javier is not just an outstanding actor; he is one of a kind,” he said at the time the film was released. “Everybody knows that. He prepares exhaustively and writes extensive notes about his character. He is committed, intense and obsessed with excellence as well. But what Javier has that makes him so special and unique is a weight, a gravity, an ominous presence on the screen that is based on his deep, strong reflectiveness and his profound interior life. That's something that can't be learned. It's something, angel or devil, that you either have or you don't.”
“Javier is not just an outstanding actor; he is one of a kind.”
Iñárritu also said that during the northern hemisphere seasons of autumn and winter 2008/9, Javier Bardem, the man he knew, “just disappeared in order to give life to Uxbal”.
And, for the record, Bardem has also said that Biutiful is “the heaviest movie” he's ever done and “one of the heaviest” he will ever do.
“It's not the kind of film where you deliver the lines and go back to your hotel to sleep,” he told msn.uk.com. “This is a personal journey. You give yourself up in the name of the role and pray to survive.”
For his trouble, Bardem won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, and to recover, he agreed to play Felipe in Eat Pray Love. “I was like, 'It's time to go to Bali, wear nylon shirts and play golf.”
Sunday 7 February, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS World Movies)
Tuesday 9 February, 1:25am on SBS World Movies
Spain, Mexico, 2010
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
Starring: Javier Bardem, Eduard Fernández