Alejandro González Iñárritu: BFI Masterclass

If you know who Alejandro González Iñárritu is, and if you know what type of film he likes to make, then the first thing you should immediately want to find out when seeing him speak live is whether he’s as insanely grim as his films suggest. This is the man who proclaimed his first three films to constitute an informal ‘Death trilogy.’ It’s the man who gave us Benicio Del Toro guilt-stricken in 21 Grams, whilst Sean Penn was dying from a fatal heart condition and Naomi Watts played a woman grieving from the loss of her husband. It’s the same man who gave us Cate Blanchett as an innocent tourist dying from a bullet-wound in Babel, and Brad Pitt as her husband trying desperately to get decent medical care for her in the midst of an Arabic desert. It’s the same man that at the end of this latter film, when dedicating it to his children, described them as the ‘brightest stars in the darkest of nights.’ Now he’s back with Biutiful, starring Javier Bardem in Barcelona, and it’s fair to say the general pain of human suffering isn’t a theme he is finished with just yet.
He doesn’t cut a solemn figure. He’s lively, and surprisingly expressive in his grip on the English language and diverse use of vocabulary. He tells us that in many ways, Biutiful is brand new territory for him, even if it’s immediately identifiable as part of his body of work. For starters, it’s naturally a break from the non-linearity so favoured in his previous films, and it also sees an end to the globe-trotting that went on as we darted from Mexico to Morocco to Tokyo in Babel. It’s also, most notably, a return to the Spanish tongue, and he tells us that with this came the ability to express himself a lot more rapidly than was possible when speaking through his second language, or even when using translators.
When asked about Bardem, it soon becomes clear he had him in mind for the role right from the start. He explains that when beginning the artistic process with writing, allowing characters to take shape in the most tranquil of environments, free from the practical constraints of financial considerations and cast and crewe organising that are so inherent in actual filmmaking, he soon began to build Biutiful‘s main character Uxbal as a man in free fall, determined to maintain his integrity and find a dignified way out of the most tragic of circumstances any human can face. The character would have to find love against the backdrop of corruption, and his environment would mean he would have to be primitively physical at the same time as being a sensitive, spiritual giant. In steps Bardem – a man he describes as having an almost Roman Gladitorial face, the type that belongs on an old coin, despite the fact he’s simultaneously one of the deepest and most emotional of actors in the business. Seeing Biutiful with this thought in mind, it soon becomes clear exactly what he means.
Soon turning to the practical considerations he had already noted were so manic and inherently unartistic, it soon becomes clear just how much of a perfectionist Iñárritu is. Uxbal’s wife in the film – a woman plagued by the traumas of bipolar disorder – is played by an unknown actress, who we learn was found after literally over a thousand auditions. Iñárritu explains that for this role, he thought it very important to find somebody with ‘the look,’ by which he means the constant expression of suffering that typifies the situation faced by all of his characters. With two weeks to go before shooting was scheduled to start, he still hadn’t found her. Biutiful’s production nearly had to be postponed just because of the search for one woman in a supporting role.
Thinking back to that quote at the end of Babel, in which he refers to the world as the darkest of nights, I started to think about what justifies his ultra-bleak assessment, and I began to realise how specific an answer could be found in his work. Rarely in an Iñárritu film is the suffering experienced by humans a product of human evil. Seldom do intentional wicked acts result in the pain and emotion he puts us through. Normally, perhaps even always, the darkness results accidentally, sometimes even as a result of good will gone wrong. Little did I know the best example of this was to come in the shape of his new film. Biutiful makes Iñárritu’s sky even darker, but not because he or anybody else wants it to be like that. His aim is clearly to show and to understand it, and that is something he has consistently and quite magnificently excelled in doing.

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