There's a notion that every one of us has fallen into at one point or another: great art is depressing. It's what drives the Oscars, film festival praise, top 10 lists (if you can think of any critics who explicitly or implicitly declared insightful relationship tragedy Blue Valentine to be superior to insightful relationship action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - critics like, say, myself - then you've seen it in action), and it's the reason we're still making goddamn Nazi movies an entire human lifetime after WWII ended. It's been 70 years this year since Preston Sturges brilliantly argued in Sullivan's Travels that comedy is even more important and real than sober message pictures with sad-sack actors looking beautifully miserable; nobody seems to have taken him very seriously, which is maybe why most contemporary comedies are so brutally unfunny.

It's for this reason that I'm grateful for films like Biutiful: they provide a very necessary contradiction to this received wisdom. Biutiful is a magnificently depressing film. It could not be any sadder unless it opened with a shot of a box full of mewling kittens being run over by a semi truck. And it's also completely awful. Scratch that - it's only mostly awful, and largely because of how oh-so-seriously depressing and gloomy it is. Herein we find Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a Barcelona man involved in the seedy business of the black market, both pirated merchandise and illegal alien labor. Much of his day-to-day business involves cutting deals to shuttle groups of Chinese workers from one ghastly job to another, but that's barely the start of it: he also has what unsurprisingly turns out to be pancreatic cancer, and is given two months to live, tops, which doesn't gel well with the fact that he's wholly responsible for his children's security and safety, while their mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) flits around town being, literally, a crazy whore.

In short: Biutiful is two and a half hours of a man dying of cancer and getting his house in order. That's not, inherently, something to complain about: great movies have been made on similar topics. Ingmar Bergman, cinema's all-time king of lacerating miserabilism, made one of the most potent and touching films of his career about an old man coming to terms with the fact that he was going to die soon. "Depressing films = art" is not a cliché that would have taken hold if it weren't true that, sometimes, depressing films = art.

The difference between something like Wild Strawberries and Biutiful, then, is not just that Biutiful is more dreary - it is, but less than Cries and Whispers - but that it is only dreary. To an almost comic degree, in fact; the universe of Biutiful is one of almost unending suffering, in a whole kaleidoscope array of forms, and at the end, its softly intoned message is, "We suffer."

Jeepers, thanks movie. I don't guess that I already knew that.

It's all the fault, ultimately of Alejandro González Iñárritu, directing his fourth feature, and the first not written by Guillermo Arriaga (the director co-wrote with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone). There has been a none-too-slow drop in quality with each of González Iñárritu's consecutive films, from his outstanding 2000 debut Amores perros, one of the key "hyperlink" films, to 2003' s strained but interesting 21 Grams, to 2006's leaden, pretentious Oscar baby Babel. I know that I'm not the only one who hoped that González Iñárritu would be able to get back to the urgent energy of his first feature without the presence of Arriaga's intricate, increasingly lifeless screenplays; but it turns out that he can do just fine on constructing huge slabs of aimlessly serious misery on his own, thank you very much.

Piling one garish note on top of the next - a warehouse full of dead immigrants, child abuse, deportation, Uxbal's ability to communicate with the recently-deceased (because magical realism is just what this scenario needed) - Biutiful might have been tolerable if it had been played for black comedy, or at least soap operatic excess. Not that it isn't cringingly melodramatic at points; anything involving Uxbal's children, especially, drifts pretty far into the crudest kind of audience manipulation. But it needed a directorial hand willing to embrace that element of the film and run with it, whereas González Iñárritu suffocates the material with profundity and sincerity. Relying on ace cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to provide the film with beautiful images of Barcelona's slums, the director seems interested only in making his movie serious and lingering and dour and dark. It's misery porn, and really nothing else: let's watch as a man has everything bad happen to him all at once, and feel very bad, and congratulate ourselves for confronting the darkness of humanity. There's never a moment that really breaks out of that rut, not even the scene in a strip club lit like an Uwe Boll movie where the dancers wear masks shaped like nipples. If you can make that scene play as glum and somber, you're definitely for real.

In the midst of all this: Bardem. Whose performance is inherently limited by the claustrophobic script, but is nevertheless an incredible depiction of one man trapped in his own body and his own life, haunted by everything he knows - the actor even makes the "communicating with the dead" subplot work! It's a performance far better than the film or the character deserve, and not in and of itself enough to save Biutiful, though he is almost single-handedly responsible for any moment of actual human feeling that manages to escape the film's event horizon. And despite his appropriation of the lion's share of the film's buzz, I was almost as impressed by Álvarez's performance as a woman who knows she's fallen too far apart to ever redeem herself, but desperately wants to be loved again and forgiven. Between the two of them, these actors almost manage to make Biutiful about something; that they fail is no slight against the work, given how close they were able to come in the face of stiff odds.

It's been a while since I've actively disliked a movie this much: sure, a lot of recent films have been far "worse", and I'm not fool enough to argue that Biutiful is a lesser cinematic achievement than e.g. Yogi Bear. González Iñárritu is a sure-handed filmmaker, and he makes exactly the picture here that he wanted to make; but that film is pretty damn unpleasant, and to no point whatsoever (and I also think his incredibly perverse choice in the sound design, to ratchet up the noise of actors' costumes rubbing against their microphones, and to let dialogue peak in odd ways, is a very bold move that works absolutely not whatsoever, even granting that "working" here means something very particular). This is in every way the next film from the man who made Babel: more sober, more serious, more worldly, more irritating and unwatchable.