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When film director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu told an interviewer that his most recent film, Biutiful, was his “first complete tragedy,” it almost sounded like a perverse joke. This is, after all, the man whose films, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, are said to comprise his “death trilogy.” His films thus far have been populated by tragic characters burdened with guilt, rage, and sorrow. In Babel, Cate Blanchett’s tourist takes a bullet to the head shortly after the opening titles, and in 21 Grams, Sean Penn’s college professor requires a heart transplant and, before the final reel, is toting a gun at the head of Benicio Del Toro who has plenty of problems of his own. Despite the downbeat tone of his films, Inarritu insists “I am not a depressive person at all,” but as he told UK’s The Telegraph, “I reflect a lot on my life and life in general from the perspective of death.”

The reflections began not long after Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was born in Mexico City on August 16, 1963. He grew up in the middle class neighborhood of La Colonia Narvarte where his father was a banker. But the bank went bust, and his father, possessing what Alejandro calls “the virtue of a warrior,” struggled to support his family, starting a business buying and selling fruits and vegetables to restaurants. Alejandro was often awakened in the night by the sound of his father coughing, and it filled him with terror. “For the first time I realized that someone could die, he said, and this sensitivity was strengthened through reading the works of Herman Hesse and Albert Camus. As a teenager, he traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, scrubbing the floors and greasing the engines of a cargo boat.

Back home in Mexico, he enrolled in a university to study film, while also working as a disc jockey at Mexico City’s most popular radio station. “That was my training as a storyteller. You create stories with music, you create soundtracks for the lives of the people in the city - four million listeners every day.” His studies eventually opened the door to directing television commercials. “I saw those as rehearsals for a feature film,” he told the BBC. “I read lots of scripts and got myself introduced to (writer) Guillermo Arriaga.” Together, they envisioned a series of short films that would portray different aspects of life in Mexico City. “We wrote 36 drafts, each one on a typewriter. It took three years.” Eventually, they settled on the three stories that became Amores Perros (translation: Love’s a Bitch).

The film’s characters hail from different socio-economic backgrounds, and include a wealthy TV producer and a homeless man, all of them brought together through a car accident in Mexico City. The overriding theme is loyalty, and dogs (man’s best friend) are an integral part of each of the characters’ lives.

Although violent, and heavily criticized by animal rights groups for scenes set in the vicious dog fighting underworld, Gonzalez Inarritu insisted he did not use violence gratuitously. “When you live in a city, as I do, where violence is really in the streets and people die every day, there’s nothing funny about it. We try to show that violence has a consequence - when you create violence, it turns against you.”

A hit at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, Amores Perros went on to an Oscar nomination as best foreign language film, and laudatory notices from The New York Times where Elvis Mitchell said it “feels like the first classic of the new decade, with sequences that will probably make their way into history. . . In his very first film, Mr. Gonzalez Inarritu makes the kind of journey some directors don’t, or can’t travel in an entire career.”

He followed that triumph by joining Wim Wenders, Sean Penn and nine other filmmakers in contributing a short (11 minutes each) segment to the 2002 film, September 11 which dramatized the events of that shocking day. In his review, Roger Ebert singled out Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Mexico” as “the best of the segments,” notable for the way the screen remains dark for most of its running time, “occasionally interrupting it with flashes of bodies falling from the burning World Trade Center.”

The success of these projects made Hollywood take notice, and Inarritu made 21 Grams in English with financial backing from Focus Features. Once again, the lives of people from strikingly diverse backgrounds converge as the result of a tragic accident. Sean Penn plays a mathematics professor in need of a heart transplant who becomes romantically involved with the widow of the donor. Benicio Del Toro is an ex-con, a reformed junky and alcoholic, who has turned to Jesus to straighten out his life. “Stealing ain’t worth it,” he advises a teenage troublemaker. “Going to church, reading the Bible, and believing in Jesus, brother, that’s your ticket.” And that’s only skimming the surface. Del Toro and Naomi Watts earned Oscar nominations for their work, and the film proved both a critical and commercial success that paved the way for Gonzalez Inarritu’s most ambitious project to date.

Babel came about after Gonzalez Inarritu moved to the United States, where he was driven after his increasing fame made him and his family a target for criminals in his homeland. “At that time in Mexico, kidnapping was kind of a sport,” he said. 

Once again working with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, they concocted a plot in which the storylines converge, turning the lives of the characters upside down.

“I was full of these ideas in my heart and in my brain about what is happening in the world,” he said, “how we have been transforming the reality of people who live very far away and how these people can be affected by a decision that is made by a guy in New York, for instance. One decision can end up being a tragedy in the life of a poor community 10,000 miles away.”

As he did in 21 Grams, Gonzalez Inarritu juggled multiple storylines, but this time on a much wider canvas, jumping from the United States to Morocco, Japan, and Mexico with dialogue in five languages. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett claimed top billing as an American couple whose vacation in Morocco is shattered when she is shot in the head by a boy whose rifle was a gift from a Japanese businessman. The story is enormously complex, and makes the point that communication is the key to understanding.

Pitt and Blanchett, as well as Japan’s Rinko Kikuchi who plays a sexually promiscuous deaf mute, were professional actors, but the majority of the cast had no previous acting experience. 

“It was a very difficult task,” Inarritu said of directing non-actors. “But it is the most rewarding experience that I have had.” The amateur cast was not intimidated by the presence of big stars like Pitt and Blanchett “because they didn’t know them. They were not affected by this pop culture that we have or these cults of personalities.”

In choosing his actors, the director “wanted to see in their eyes something that was close to what the character should be. I think that in the eyes you can read the interior life of a person. And I thought, have they got an interior life? Some emotional baggage that they can find themself to play what the character needs? All these people were what they are.”

Babel was nominated for seven Oscars, including nods for best picture and best director, but it proved to be a very contentious movie, starting at the Cannes Film Festival where it divided the audience into two camps: those who loved it and felt it deserving of the Palme d’Or (which it failed to win), and those who felt it was too manipulative, too reliant on contrived coincidences, to be effective. For Time’s Richard Corliss, his “overriding feeling during the movie was one of exasperation.” It was all too much for David Edelstein, the New York magazine critic who, reviewing the film for NPR, said, “I finally detached myself from Babel. Who wants to surrender to scrambled, in-your-face storytelling when you can’t for a second trust the storytellers?” Roger Ebert, on the other hand, believed that “Babel finds Inarritu in full command of his technique. . . the film builds to a stunning impact because it does not hammer us with heroes and villains but asks us to empathize with all of its characters.”

While the film proposed that many of the world’s ills is due to a lack of communication, too much communication may have fractured Inarritu’s partnership with writer Guillermo Arriaga. After Arriaga told the press that he was as much the “auteur” of the three films he wrote for Inarritu as Gonzalez Inarritu himself, and responsible for “95 percent of the structure of 21 Grams,” the director was incensed and banned the writer from the Babel screening at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.

Having completed the films that he considered a trilogy, Gonzalez Inarritu felt it was time to move away from multiple storylines. “After Babel, I felt that I was getting into a predictable route. I didn’t want to be branded as the multi-linear guy. So I deliberately wanted to explore a straight, linear narrative.”

The inspiration for Biutiful came to him after “I had listened to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and that had given me an idea for a tone and a mood.” In the film, Javier Bardem is a small-time hood overseeing a sweat shop populated by illegal immigrants from Africa and China. His wife is bipolar and having sex with his brother. Diagnosed with cancer, he tries reconnecting with his estranged children.

The director doesn’t deny that it’s a grim film. “If we want to reduce the film to a word or to an adjective, yes, people have used ‘dark’ or ‘bleak’,” Inarritu told NPR. “This is a tragedy which is a genre that has been forgotten in the entertainment business, and is a great valuable way to express a story of human beings.” In Biutiful, Javier Bardem’s character is “somebody who will be hit by destiny in every angle, and while he’s falling, how this character with dignity will find a way to redeem himself.”

For Bardem, his role as Uxbal is appealing because “I believe in contradiction. I believe that the world is not black-and-white, and that is why I like to portray characters like this. There’s a human being there going through a lot of conflicts and contradictions and is not easy to read in the first moment. But as we go along in the movie, we understand better who he is and we care for him.”

Barcelona is far less sunny in Biutifil than it was in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona in which Bardem played an artist. “It was just that I discovered that part of Barcelona,” the director said. “It has these hidden, dark places. I think all of Europe has been struck by immigration, and it’s getting really, really tough.”

Gonzalez Inarritu believes that art should “provoke, create catharsis.” As for Biutiful, “You might like it, or you might not like it, but nobody will be indifferent.” Recalling a French critic who saw the film twice at Cannes, disliking it the first time and admiring it on the second viewing, the director said, “In a way, I think it is a film that needs to be seen two times. It’s like when something very emotional happens - you see it one way, how you acted, how you thought, but when time passes, you take out the emotionality of it. It takes on another meaning.”

Biutiful certainly provoked. While praising Bardem as “always persuasive,” Mark Jenkins of NPR found the film “contrived, bombastic and lacking a sense of proportion.” Roger Ebert was admiring. “Gonzalez Inarritu follows Uxbal’s last days with great intimacy, burying his camera in the seamy street life that Uxbal lives, introducing many characters in sharp and colorful relief.”

Biutiful earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and Bardem picked up a nod as best actor.

Responding to the charge that his films are bleak, depressing affairs in which death hovers above the proceedings like an ominous cloud, Inarritu told NPR that “I found much more darkness and bleakness in a 30 minute TV newscast, and in films where people are killed and you feel nothing, and when they kill people in a very cool way, very well shot, you laugh and you don’t care.” In his films, you care, and no matter how tragic the lives depicted, they ultimately celebrate life.

“You can better embrace life, you can enjoy it more, when you are conscious that it will end. You bite life.” He has talked of possibly attempting comedy at some point, and offered a preview of sorts with a Nike commercial he directed for the 2010 World Cup. For now, he says, “I better do something better than make them laugh a little bit. That’s the way I respect the audience.” 

by Brian W. Fairbanks

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