In just 10 years Alejandro González Iñárritu has become the old guard of Mexican cinema. One of the 'Three Amigos' with co-conspirators Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, his film, Amores perros, helped reignite the country's film industry on the international stage.
The results of what they started can be seen in Cannes's Critics Week selection where a feature-length collection of shorts celebrating the centenary of the Mexican revolution features young Mexican directors like Gael Garcia Bernal, Carlos Reygadas and Gerardo Naranjo. It's a project that likely wouldn't have existed without the Amigos' renaissance of the early 2000s.
So Iñárritu's return to the screen for the first time since 2006's Babel is a justified event. But Biutiful is his first project without collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, who helped steer the director through all three of his features to date.
Fortunately, it proves Iñárritu as a talent in its own right. A tale of terminal illness, spirituality and Barcelona's black market, it's an intricately woven portrait of a man's despair. And it's as artfully executed as it is heartbreaking.
Javier Bardem leads Iñárritu's first all-Spanish-language project since Amores perros as Uxbal, whose life is at turns seedy, desperate and caring. With two young kids in tow and a mentally ill estranged wife to contend with, his is an existence defined by a need to eke out a living any way possible. Providing cheap Chinese labor for sweatshops and construction sites, and managing the sale of black market goods by some of Barcelona's immigrant population, he's practically a one-man mafia, bribing police officers and doing his best to keep his charges out of trouble, while making a quick buck.
But a particular gift for being able to see spirits of the recently deceased means he's also ready and available at funeral homes to profit from the desperation of bereaved mothers and fathers.
When he's told his cancer has spread and he has mere months to live, his whole world changes. As his illness begins to make managing his various commitments all the more challenging, as his wife reappears claiming to be cured and as he struggles to find a home for his kids after his death, Uxbal's lot becomes ever more desperate.
The film's greatest strength is its unwillingness to judge Uxbal for his actions. There but by the grace of God go I, after all. The character's position in Barcelona's under classes is one defined by circumstance, and his is a slippery slope he can't find purchase to escape.
Fascinating, too, is the film's exploration of changed perspective in the face of terminal illness. Since we follow Uxbal, we see the world through his eyes and our vision becomes increasingly less reliable as the film unspools. The frame changes dimension at a certain point, reflections in mirrors lag behind their real-world counterparts and spirits of the deceased cling to ceilings and torment our lead character.
But if you were to strip all of that away – all of the flourishes with which Iñárritu paints his canvas – this would still be a brilliantly-observed study of a character facing his demise, and that it dares to challenge real issues about migrant workers and the black market is all the more impressive. Bardem's outstanding central performance – which rightly bagged him Cannes' Best Actor trophy – keeps us engaged every second of screen time.
With the stunning success of Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel, it's good to be able to say that, with Biutiful, Iñárritu is four for four.