Alejandro González Iñárritu
The Biutiful director talks about love, transformation and the difficulties his movies have faced
Published: February 9, 2011
When Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu followed his 2006 Babel with Biutiful, his first Spanish-language movie since 2000’s acclaimed Amores Perros, he knew finding an audience was going to be difficult: Only now, as if reluctantly, are (some) U.S. theaters screening the movie. Nevertheless, Iñárritu made the movie he wanted, and Javier Bardem won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival (shared with Italian Elio Germano for La Nostra Vita), while the movie earned a Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe nomination. Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor arrived in late January. Enrique Lopetegui, the music and screens editor at City Paper’s sister paper the San Antonio Current, interviewed Iñárritu in Spanish by phone in mid-January (translation his).
City Paper: When did you realize you were going to dedicate Biutiful to your father?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: At the end of filming. It’s a movie that talks a lot about paternity, which is a theme that has been present in all my movies, especially in this one. I thought it was just and appropriate to dedicate it to my father.
CP: I’m fascinated by the way love changes people in your movies, not only internally but physically as well. That, the external face of love, is something you deal with more often than most directors.
AGI: More than love, it’s about a change of consciousness, of priorities. When you go from a more superficial thing to a deeper one, there is an internal change. You change your perception of what are the important things that sustain existence. In the case of [Javier] Bardem’s character, there’s something that has a lot to do with compassion, love, and forgiveness.
CP: You knew what you were getting into when you decided to shoot the movie in Spanish, didn’t you? Still, it bothers me that so few theaters are showing the movie now, and it took them a long time.
AGI: Yes, it’s always a challenge. When you give a kid tons of sugar, he accumulates so many carbohydrates that he becomes addicted to sugar, and if something doesn’t have as much sugar, it’s tasteless to him. Ninety percent of the film industry is targeted to 10-14-year-old kids and, in the name of entertainment, brutal atrocities have been committed. The language can already be an obstacle, especially among cultures that are not used to reading subtitles or seeing themselves in other people. They have to see people like themselves on the screen in order to understand anything. It’s hard for them to accept that the world exists beyond their own culture. It’s hard for them. But this movie has an extra obstacle: It touches a deeper, more human subject matter. When you add these obstacles, you know that you’re reducing your market. But I couldn’t be more proud of the movie. I did it because I could not have subordinated it to those interests that have nothing to do with the movie. I knew there would be consequences, but that is secondary. The important thing is the story itself.
CP: This is your first movie without [screenwriter] Guillermo Arriaga. How did the dynamics of the writing process change for this movie?
AGI: Writing has never been foreign to me. Guillermo was an important collaborator, but I have a large group of collaborators with whom I’ve always worked. Working with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone was a very rich, different, but equally passionate experience. With Guillermo we had a very productive association throughout three movies, but all directors always have to look for new collaborators, depending on the project. In this case I found two and the process, pleasure-wise, was very similar. There weren’t too many changes.
CP: [Two-time Oscar winner] Gustavo Santaolalla has written the scores of all your films. What is it about him? His music never interferes. . . You watch the movie and don’t even notice the music, yet somehow you feel it. It’s always there.
AGI: Gustavo’s contribution is always magnificent. He finds the character’s backbone with very few notes, textures, and elements. He’s one of the world’s great musicians, without a doubt.
CP: If I’m not mistaken, [cinematographer] Rodrigo Prieto has hand-held [shot] all of your films, right?
AGI: It’s the fourth movie we made together. He has great clarity and a powerful idea of what beauty is, but always subordinated to the drama. Just like Santaolalla, he understands the characters and their necessities and is able to translate all that with brushstrokes of light. We’ve always shot hand-held, which gives the movie a sense of immediacy, of urgency. We have such a communication that we just look at each other and he knows exactly what’s going on and what he has to capture. And I think this is his best work by far, because it’s his most lyrical and poetic.
CP: Even though they’re completely different movies, I think Biutiful and Amores Perros are your most accomplished films. Do you agree?
AGI: You’re right, they’re different. All four are different. [I see Biutiful] more like a requiem, more melancholic. Amores Perros was more . . . rock ‘n’ roll. But it is a fact that Biutiful projects a shade from the same tree.
CP: Your critics claim that your movies are depressing or manipulative, hard to watch, and Biutiful was no exception.
AGI: Each person has the right to watch it or not. But [Biutiful], to me, is not depressing. It exposes a very light reality compared with the real miseries and tragedies that exist in the world. It’s an ordinary, day-to-day reality. But people have lost that emotional muscle you need to face those realities not dealt with in mainstream cinema. There is a sort of stereotypical film reality and, when you break that reality, people don’t feel safe. They enter an unstable territory.
CP: Where did you find Maricel álvarez [who plays Bardem’s wife]? She was superb.
AGI: They had extraordinary chemistry. It’s her first movie, but she’s an amazing stage actress with tremendous technique and heart. Between the two they found a very intense, strong, vibrant communication.
CP: What’s going on in Mexico? This is a golden age for Mexican cinema, and you, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón lead the pack.
AGI: It happened because of the individual effort of each one of us. We’re from the same generation and we share our work in the sense that we can count on one another’s clear and precise opinions at different stages of creation. That’s always helpful, whether you use the advice or not, because it gives you tools to keep going forward. It’s very fortunate to be able to have a friendship with a colleague you trust, and whose opinion comes from the right place, the heart, and who has the experience and wisdom to tell you something that helps you improve your work. We’re friends, and it’s a phenomenal coincidence that we’re doing the same thing.
CP: Anything else?
AGI: I invite people to be daring and see Biutiful. Don’t be afraid. A 30-minute newscast is scarier than a movie filled with humanity.