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‘Biutiful’ Day at AMPAS Launches Oscar Campaign

With a panel discussion moderated by Guillermo Del Toro, dark drama aims to attract adventurous voters

It might be the darkest movie of the year, but is “Biutiful” an Oscar contender as well?

That’s the hope at Roadside Attractions, which essentially launched an awards campaign for the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu drama at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater on Saturday, when the director was joined for a post-screening Q&A by director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, editor Stephen Mirrione and composer Gustavo Santaolalla, a panel with seven Oscar nominations and three wins between them.

The session was moderated by a friend of Inarritu’s and an associate producer on “Biutiful,” Oscar-winning director Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”).

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Javier BardemAnd Del Toro is hardly the only high-profile backer the film has acquired. Sean Penn told Josh Brolin the film was “a f—ing masterpiece.” Director Michael Mann is a big fan; so are Werner Herzog, who'll moderate an upcoming DGA Q&A with Inarritu in Los Angeles, and Robert Benton, who'll do the same in New York.

And when I spoke to him over the weekend, Ben Affleck told me that while he never goes to premieres of other people’s movies, he's going to attend the “Biutiful” premiere because Javier Bardem, his co-star in a currently-filming Terrence Malick movie, had promised him tickets. 

Affleck says that Bardem also warned him that the movie is “very dark,” which could be the biggest hurdle “Biutiful” faces in getting the attention of Oscar voters. In the film, Bardem plays a father of two who lives in the slums of Barcelona, makes a living in the black market, has a self-destructive, bipolar ex-wife, and is hiding a serious health problem.

The ending, depending on how you interpret it, is either sad with a ray of light, or crushingly bleak.

Reviews out of Cannes and Toronto were wildly mixed, ranging from Jeff Wells comparing it to the Italian neorealist classic “The Bicycle Thief” to Variety’s conclusion that Inarittu was “stuck in a grim rut.”

Especially after seeing the film for a second time at the Linwood Dunn, I’m in the former camp. Despite the darkness, “Biutiful” is as powerful as it is sorrowful; it creates, and sustains, a gentle, piercing mood that’s hard to shake afterwards.

This is a film that sticks with you, with a towering lead performance from Bardem that absolutely should put him in the thick of the Best Actor race.

At the moment, though, both Bardem and the film seem to be on the bubble as far as most awards-watchers are concerned – except in the Foreign-Language Film category, where “Biutiful” is the official Mexican submission, and a favorite to make the shortlist, either at the hands of the voters or the Academy's foreign-language executive committee.

But when it comes to Best Actor and Best Picture and other categories, Roadside needs a boost from backers like Del Toro and Herzog, who can help persuade Oscar voters that a small, dark movie is worthy of their attention.

Inarittu, by the way, doesn’t think that his movie is inescapably bleak. “It’s a Greek tragedy, or like the Book of Job,” he said at a Cannes press conference. “ … I think the guy is full of light.”

And here’s one thing to keep in mind: that Book of Job comparison worked last year for the Coen Brothers’ “A Simple Man,” another dark and divisive film that ended up landing a Best Picture nomination.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu and Javier Bardem will bring “Biutiful” to theWrap Screening Series on December 7.

(Photo of Inarritu and Bardem by Jose Haro)