Biutiful, directed by Alejandro Gonsalez Inarritu, is a quietly devastating film that will break your heart. It’s a film that puts you through the wringer; it draws you into the bleak world of its protagonist, then takes that world apart brick by brick.
Javier Bardem is Uxbal, a desperate hustler from the seedier parts of Barcelona who makes ends meet trafficking illegal Asian immigrants and managing African street hawkers. He spends his days mostly dodging the corrupt police, but lives for the moments he shares with his young daughter and son who he is determined to protect from the world, including his bipolar ex-wife who prostitutes herself to support her drug habit.
Early on in the film we’re given evidence to believe that Uxbal is a decent man in a not-so-straight line of work. He may supply illegal immigrants to an exploitative underground business, but his inherent decency prompts him to try to improve their lives. There is only so much he can do though. Uxbal’s clock is ticking. He’s just discovered he has terminal cancer, and barely a few weeks to live.
If all this sounds incredibly depressing, brace yourself because it is.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Biutiful rests on the shoulders of its star Bardem, who plays Uxbal as a man who is brave and strong, yet hurting and vulnerable. Bardem uses his soulful eyes to convey volumes of pain, both literal and figurative; and the film’s director Inarritu stacks up the tragedies for his protagonist.
It’s hard to put your finger on what precisely this film is trying to say. On the simplest level, it’s about trying to hang on to one’s goodness despite being at the centre of a cruel universe. It is also a story about the bonds of parenthood.
On the flip side, there is a hokey subplot about Uxbal being able to communicate with the recently dead. More than once the film tends to get preachy and politically correct, especially when it shifts from its central plot to show us the tribulations of an African family in Spain, or the complicated relationship between two gay Chinese criminals. And despite the stunning photography, there are long portions that seem unforgivably indulgent.
Yet Biutiful is the kind of film that doesn’t come along every day. How many films succeed in tearing through your flesh and punching you straight in the gut?
There’s something inherently heartbreaking about the dignity Bardem brings to his part. Nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in this film, Bardem becomes Uxbal. The performance, in the end, is greater than the film.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Alejandro Gonsalez Inarritu’s Biutiful. It creates one of the most compelling characters you’ve seen, then challenges you not to be affected by him.