Bardem brings the power to 'Biutiful'

Javier Bardem as Uxbal - criminal, loving father, psychic, and terminal cancer sufferer. He is desperate to set things right before he dies.
Javier Bardem as Uxbal - criminal, loving father, psychic, and terminal cancer sufferer. He is desperate to set things right before he dies.
Posted: February 04, 2011

Although it circles back on itself, bracketed by dreamy scenes of snow-covered woods where momentous things occur, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful works differently than the Mexican director's previous films.

No overlapping time-loop narratives, no sprawling, interconnected cast of characters. The story is linear, the point of view belongs to just one man. And yet, this immensely powerful and haunting work resonates in ways that Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel - hardly lightweight affairs - did not.

Much of that resonance has to do with Javier Bardem, who was rightly accorded a best-actor Oscar nomination last week and who draws from a deep, deep well of love, pain, and who-knows-what-else. It's a performance that will make you forget any shortcomings, or pretensions, the film might have (and it has a few). Bardem is Uxbal, a street criminal in Barcelona - he traffics in illegal immigrant labor, from Chinese sweatshop workers to Senegalese street dealers - who discovers he has inoperable cancer, and only a short time to live. Uxbal has two children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), whom he loves dearly. His ex-wife, their mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), is a boozed-up basket case who works now and then as a prostitute; she comes and goes, but he is the anchor, the center of gravity in the kids' lives.

And, oh yes, Uxbal is psychic. He can commune with the dead, and so he has a particular sense of urgency in terms of his own life - and its impending end. He needs to put his house in order, financially and spiritually, before he goes. "You and I know the dead suffer if they leave debts behind," a woman, a fellow seer, tells him.

So Biutiful is about Uxbal's journey to set things right.

It is also about the underside of the new Europe: the undocumented and disenfranchised, the squalid ghettos hidden from the tourists, the tentative hold that the underclass has. Their lives, their livelihoods, are up for grabs. Uxbal walks through this world, wheeling and dealing, paying off cops and appeasing bosses, and trying to treat these people with respect and decency. It's an impulse that ends, shockingly, in tragedy.

Shot by Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematographer for all of Iñárritu's projects (and for Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain), Biutiful jumps and swoops with an almost desperate energy. It's gritty, arresting filmmaking, and manages to evoke both Uxbal's interior emotional landscape and Barcelona's teeming, exterior life. One elaborate sequence - a police raid on the Senegalese black marketeers across crowded sidewalks and one of the city's central squares - looks like documentary footage of a near-riot; it must have been a daunting thing to stage and shoot.

Biutiful is strong stuff, it will leave you shaken. There's poetry here, and catastrophe. At times, Iñárritu, who wrote the screenplay with two collaborators, piles things on - the imagery, the action. A little economy and restraint would have been in order, but if the director's artistic ambitions get the better of him, Bardem's instincts get the better of it all.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

 

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