Sitting in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel in New York's SoHo neighborhood, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu could be Don Quixote, tilting at Hollywood windmills with movies that, as he puts it, run up against "the dictatorship of corporate thinking."
Just the release of his new film "is a reason to celebrate," he says. "I would say that it is an act of resistance against the intoxicating culture we live under. At least it's an attempt to survive."
He's talking about Biutiful, which opens Dec. 29 in limited release. Four years in the making, it's exactly the kind of film that he couldn't get made if he undertook it today, he says. And he's loathe to try to encapsulate or thumbnail it in a two-sentence description.
"After four years, to reduce it to a couple of lines really minimizes the whole thing," Inarritu says, sipping at the dregs of a cappuccino. "If you actually asked me, I would say that this film is an observation of a simple man's life in the extremely complex world we all are living in. It's an ordinary story. The world surrounding him is extraordinarily complex. Behind all that, it's a love story between a father and his children. The heart of the film is that."
Biutiful stars Javier Bardem as a hustler on the streets of Barcelona, trafficking in both counterfeit designer goods (sold by his army of illegal African immigrants) and in illegal workers themselves: another army of Asian immigrants working in sweatshops, producing the counterfeit designer goods. He's also a single father of two kids, dealing with an ex-wife who's struggling with alcoholism - until he receives a sudden diagnosis of inoperable cancer.
For Inarritu, it's the first film he's shot in Europe - specifically, Barcelona - and his first film as a director since 2006's Babel.
"I joke that, 60 years ago, Bunuel went to Mexico to shoot Los Olvidados'and, 60 years later, this is my version, shot in Barcelona," he says. "I wanted to shoot in my own language. It's the first film I did in Europe. I observed an urgent phenomenon no one wants to talk about: immigration. And the food is fantastic."
He wrote it with the Oscar-winning Bardem in mind: "It's the first time I wrote a role for one actor," he admits. "That's a super-dangerous thing to do. He was attached to do Nine at the time. I arrived with this hot script and he said no to Nine and did this. It was a tricky decision. I was really worried. Because if he says no to me instead, then I'm dead."