Set in a dismal-looking Barcelona and following a character with amazingly bad luck, Biutiful slathers on the misery like few other movies do. But misery is nothing new for its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, the man behind several other bleak pictures, including Amores Perros and 21 Grams . Biutiful is a big movie that’s slightly overloaded with ideas and impressions but held together by one of Javier Bardem’s best performances to date.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a father of two who works as a middleman between Barcelona’s illegal immigrants and the men who employ them. Like the immigrants, Uxbal lives a pretty rough, hand-to-mouth existence. Fortunately, he’s able to make a few extra Euros here and there, communing with the dead for grief-stricken relatives. It’s an ability that he carries like a burden, and one that the film itself seems to forget about pretty quickly.
Uxbal is neither hero nor villain, but he has his fair share of life debts, and his sins and shortcomings come sharply into focus when he’s suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. He isn’t personally exploiting the desperate workers, but he’s still legally a criminal. And while his estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) is unstable and immature, maybe he could try a little harder.
Moving swiftly between scenes of quiet familial bliss and visceral depictions of pain (both the physical and the psychic kind), Biutiful is ruthless in its attempts to run the gamut of human experience. Thankfully, because we’re able to accept and feel for Bardem’s tortured hero, we’re likewise able to accept every nasty twist of fate Iñárritu co-writers Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone subject him to. If it weren’t for Bardem’s performance, Biutiful , which is already a bit unwieldy, would likely be a mess of disparate ideas and gratuitous darkness.
Besides Bardem, Álvarez’s portrayal of the impulsive Marambra is stunning. This is almost literally a thankless role, as she appears to be little more than a self-involved and self-destructive party girl. Marambra can play the role of doting mother when she needs to, or when she’s desperate enough for Uxbal’s attention, but sooner or later her overwhelming desire to “have fun” breaks the family apart once again. Uxbal is the one who’s dying, but Marambra is the film’s most heartbreaking character.
Uxbal’s Barcelona seems to reek of mildew and stale cigarette smoke. Desperation lurks everywhere, just a little less so within the confines of the small, run-down apartment he shares with his children (played by Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella). Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures this world in the popular art-house style, with hurried, handheld cameras following their subjects closely and an eye-popping yet subdued color palette. It’s an atmosphere you can almost touch and feel.
What does a basically good man go through when he sees death coming at him, fast and hard? That’s the essential question of Biutiful . And while the journey Iñárritu and Bardem take us on to find the answer is certainly bleak, it’s also, strangely and definitely, hopeful.