I’ve watched films during this festival from all four parts of the globe. In fact the only continent I haven’t seen something from is Antarctica and that’s only because I was unable to catch the restored print of The Great White Silence which charted Captain Scott’s ill-fated race to the South Pole.
One other area of Planet Earth I hadn’t stuck a pin in at the LFF was the Middle East, an unforgivable state of affairs which I rectified with a hasty viewing of the Israeli film Infiltration.
The BFI South Bank’s NFT2, where Infiltration was screened is a little cramped to be honest. The amount of legroom available is limited, but you kind of learn to live with it.
Well, most of us do anyway. Shortly before the film started a young woman turned up and stood at the end of our row looking uncertain. She said to no-one in particular: “It’s a bit tight isn’t it? What if I need to go to the toilet?” before bravely venturing into the row, where it became apparent very quickly she was at the other end of it. She then uttered, holding her hands to her head in genuine distress: “Oh, this is sooo scary.” Scary? What, walking along a row of amiable cinemagoers? Jesus wept; if someone was holding a gun to her head and making a series of unreasonable demands then maybe she would have a case with a statement like that, but as things go this shouldn’t rank up there as one of the scariest things to happen to you. If so, then you need to get some flippin’ perspective.
Anyway, onto the film. Falling somewhere between Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), Infiltration is set in 1956 and follows a series of misfits aspiring to be soldiers.
They’re an unpolished rabble, made up of a smorgasbord of North African and European immigrants and Holocaust survivors, petty criminals and bourgeoisie.
Up until then you’d have put none of them together, but they are forced to share the same barracks during boot camp and learn the hard way what it means to be a soldier.
Much like its characters, Infiltration is somewhat of a ragtag film from Dover Kosashvili, a bit rough round the edges with an ill-advised jaunty soundtrack.
The script, by Kosashvili and Reuven Hecker is also a bit clunky, making unsubtle comments about Israel’s apparent penchant for military aggression towards its neighbours in reaction to the terrible suffering the Jews experienced at the hands of the Nazis.
Neither as visceral as Platoon nor as tough as Full Metal Jacket, Infiltration is a bit of a misfire I’m afraid.
Thankfully the day was livened up with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s highly anticipated latest Biutiful.
Iñárritu is one of the world’s most celebrated directors, having broken out with his startlingly fresh debut Amores Perros (2000), which launched the career of Gael Garcia Bernal, and its acclaimed follow-ups, 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), both of which garnered Oscar nominations.
Although impressive films in their own right, 21 Grams and Babel were accused of being derivative, with Babel especially being criticised for pushing Iñárritu’s formula of weaving multiple plot strands together to the limits of acceptability. Perhaps wisely, he has backed away from going down this road once again with Biutiful, his first Spanish-language film since Amores Perros.
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a man fighting to keep his head above water. He lives in a grotty flat with his two children, while his estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) is having an affair with his brother and partner-in-crime Tito (Eduard Fernández).
Away from his kids, Uxbal is a different man, a hustler making money wherever and however he can – and if that means exploiting sweatshop workers and illegal immigrants then so be it.
Uxbal also makes money on the side by using a special gift, an ability which allows him to connect with the dead, to comfort those grieving a recent loss.
When Uxbal is informed he is terminally ill, life suddenly shifts him in a different direction and he resolves to get his affairs in order before his time’s up. He reconnects with the bipolar Marambra and tries to make amends by helping out the wife of a Sudanese man who has been deported after being caught by the police selling black market goods.
He also endeavors to make life a little more comfortable for the Chinese immigrants he is exploiting and who live illegally in a warehouse basement, but his gesture leads to tragedy and, eaten by guilt he realises he cannot do this any longer.
A film of immense assurance, Biutiful makes the down and dirty a thing of visual splendour, thanks to Rodrigo Prieto’s stunning cinematography.
The supernatural angle, at first, seems tacked on and unnecessary, but as the film progresses this plot device begins to make sense and provides Biutiful‘s most distressing and disturbing scene when Uxbal enters the basement of dead Chinese immigrants and we can see their ghosts clinging to the ceiling, faces etched with horror. It’s a moment that stays with you long after the end credits roll.
A splendid, committed cast give their all, especially Uxbal’s two kids, the charming Maramba (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) and Álvarez, whose life is falling apart even faster then Uxbal’s.
But this is Bardem’s film. He is talismanic as Uxbal, a desperate bully one moment, a loving father the next and a man desperately trying to find the right path for his kids before it is too late. As it happens, a moment of kindness shown earlier in the film proves to be a blessing later on and offers him a chance of redemption he is strong enough to take.
It comes as little surprise Bardem won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a performance of real stature that catapults this film into the realms of genuine beauty.