I'm not averse to a little spirituality in my films – among recent releases, take Of Gods and Men, Uncle Boonmee or currently, The Portuguese Nun by France's quiet visionary Eugène Green.
I don't mind mysticism; it's mystification that gets my goat. Two films released last week address the enigma of the afterlife, and both strike me as bogus. One is Hollywood Bogus, the other International Art-House Bogus, and the latter, in my book, is more galling – especially when it comes from as talented a director as Mexico's Alejandro Gon-zalez Iñarritu, who made the vital, ground-breaking Amores Perros.
Set in Barcelona, Biutiful is the story of a modern-day martyr. Uxbal (Javier Bardem) operates in the city's underground economy, a fixer for deals involving illegal immigrants. He has a corrupt cop leaning on him, is dying of prostate cancer, is struggling to raise two kids while his bipolar ex-wife (Maricel Alvarez) sleeps with his sleazy brother (Eduard Fernandez), and the long-buried father he never knew is about to be exhumed. Oh, and he also sees dead people. Sometimes on the ceiling. As the late comic Max Wall said, after a litany of personal woes – it's got to be funny, hasn't it?
The city depicted here is a stew of poverty and squalor, nothing short of hell on earth – not least for its struggling migrant populations. Iñarritu deserves credit for depicting a multi-ethnic, grittily non-touristic Barcelona never normally seen on film, but that alone doesn't provide credibility. The realism of this milieu is intense enough – and surely worth the investment of storytelling faith – without Iñarritu and his co-writers dragging in a mess of metaphysics. (When you die, apparently, you go to the Pyrenees, or some similar snowbound realm; it looked to me a lot like Narnia.)
Iñarritu's previous films were a touch humourless, but you could always see the pleasure he took in narrative – his 21 Grams leavened the heaviness of its themes with the director's light touch in tossing its jigsaw shapes. But Biutiful – Iñarritu's first film without writer Guillermo Arriaga – is a sombre drag, maintaining almost unbroken glumness as it heaps woe after woe upon its hero. Fortunately Bardem's ox-like shoulders can take it, and one of the film's saving graces is the quiet, dignified solidity of his Oscar-nominated performance.
Iñarritu is hugely talented, but as his last film Babel showed, he's come to regard himself far too seriously as an artist; it now behoves him to make grand statements about the state of modernity's soul (Biutiful has an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film, and it's earnest enough to win). Without doubt, there's some impressive cinema in here, including hauntingly moody night photography by Rodrigo Prieto, and a dynamically photographed police chase through the crowds (genuinely taken aback, it seems) of an upmarket shopping area. But the narrative is downright ludicrous – its nadir comes when Uxbal performs a good deed which, with the bitterest irony, causes the death of 25 people. I can see how it might have worked in one of the blacker episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Iñarritu loses further points for whimsy – the film's title comes from Uxbal's daughter's misspelt English – and for egregiously crass use of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. Tendentious, leaden, resembling a grim summit between Ken Loach and M Night Shyamalan, Biutiful is altogether "hidius".
Where Iñarritu uses the theme of the afterlife as rather precious meta-phor, Hereafter is straightforwardly preachy. This sleek, ether-struck nonsense is made by – of all people – the normally level-headed Clint Eastwood, and is a three-part tale of linked destinies, apparently modelled on Iñarritu's trilogy films ('cause it sure ain't out of Pulp Fiction). One third, set in London – and arguably the clunkiest work in Eastwood's entire oeuvre – involves the young twin sons (George and Frankie McLaren) of a junkie mother. When one dies in an accident, the other – taken into care – tries to contact him in the Great Beyond.
Another strand involves Marie, a French TV journalist (Cécile de France, commandingly punchy) who is caught in a tsunami while visiting Indonesia, and has a near-death experience in which she sees crowds standing in a field of light, like alien-abductee extras in Close Encounters. That's the sort of thing Hollywood movies unthinkingly do: suggest that thousands of nameless Asians died (in a scrupulously CGI-recreated cataclysm) purely so that one Western tourist can have a life-changing moment of illumination.
And so hard-nosed reporter Marie drops the Mitterrand biography she's contracted to write and pursues instead her own enquiry into the afterlife – concluding that research into the subject has been suppressed by the forces of "prejudice and closed-mindedness". Rationalists are made to look pretty obtuse here, while enlightenment is embodied by a wise Swiss doctor (Marthe Keller) who tells Marie that, speaking as a doctor and an atheist, even she believes that the evidence of life after death is "irrefutable". Get that? Irrefutable. I can't wait for Clint's next film about intelligent design and how Darwinian punks have hijacked America's classrooms. The three story strands converge in exorbitantly improbable fashion when the characters all independently wind up at a book fair at London's Ally Pally, thanks to Charles Dickens (and a bemused-looking Derek Jacobi as himself). It's as if some higher power were governing their destinies – or as if writer Peter Morgan were outrageously pulling the strings of Dickensian plot contrivance. Now, it's entirely possible that Morgan's script might originally have been intended as a more ambivalent, sceptical, playful undertaking. If so, Eastwood certainly doesn't make it come across that way.
There's actually a third of a decent film in this glossy vacancy, with Matt Damon as a reluctant medium who has abandoned the profession because "a life that's all about death is no life at all". Demonstrating what he means, a cookery-class encounter between him and a potential girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) goes poignantly wrong – and, mawkish as this duet could have been, Eastwood's steady direction gets the best out of Howard.
Above all, Damon, whenever he's on screen, gives the film real human warmth, and reminds us just how good this actor is at self-effacing, bloke-on-the-corner vulnerability (and how good Eastwood is with themes of male loneliness). Damon makes plain old earthbound existence look far more intriguing than any transcendental flummery, and just about redeems the film from its laborious anti-rationalist propagandising. Mind you, it's uncanny, isn't it, that there should be two films about the afterlife in one week. Coincidence? Divine intention? Or distributors being clever? You decide. I'm just too closed-minded to care.
Jonathan Romney squares up to The Fighter, a boxing drama from Hollywood pugilist David O Russell