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Mortal Thoughts: Alejandro González Iñárritu Confronts Death in 'Biutiful'

Alejandro González Iñárritu (left) and Javier Bardem prepare to introduce Biutiful at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

As much as death looms as the inescapable reality in all our lives, few would care to learn of their imminent passing, much less confront its approach at the movies. Yet for Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu, best known for the Oscar-nominated dramas Amores Perros (2001) and Babel (2007), it was that commonly evaded consciousness of mortality that inspired his latest offering, Biutiful.
 
Despite casting No Country for Old Men star Javier Bardem as the doomed centerpiece of his morbid but ultimately uplifting film, which opens Friday, Iñárritu is a realist, keenly aware that death is a tough sell when considered as something more than an abstract concept.
 
“People are thanatophobic,” says Iñárritu, 37. “All people know they will die, but they don’t actually believe it. They don’t allow themselves to think about it. But I don’t think it’s masochistic to talk about death.
 
“For me, it’s about observing life through [the prospect of] death – then, life has more meaning. When you go on vacation, if you think the vacation will last forever, you take it for granted. But if you know you have just three days at the beach, you will appreciate every minute of it.”
 
In Biutiful, Bardem plays Uxbal, a dour anti-hero who moonlights as a spiritual channel, communicating with the dead and relaying their messages back to the living. When doctors inform him that his time on earth is unexpectedly limited, Uxbal struggles to write the epilogue to a life spent mostly in Barcelona’s underworld, surrounded by poverty and desperation.
 
Iñárritu, who has been accused in some circles of reveling in hopelessness, says he hopes to embrace emotional intimacy and conflicting ideas of spirituality in his films, and he makes no apology for his admitted desire to elicit extreme reactions from audiences. But he acknowledges that exploring the dark side isn’t the easiest way to secure a distribution deal in America.
 
“I come from an intense culture, in Mexico City, and when I present these ideas, there is no filter,” he says. “This is tragedy, not melodrama. If I’m going to address spirituality and death, I’m going to do it the only way I know how, and in some cultures that does not sit well.
 
“Uxbal is a character in a character-driven film, where we experience every phase of his journey, which is ending but needs to be put in order. He is seeking to purify himself. He needs to work for forgiveness. It’s a journey people can relate to, but not an easy one. That is the essence of classical tragedy."

Biutiful opens Friday at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. For tickets and showtimes, click here.