Is director Alejandro González Iñárritu ever going to lighten up? Biutiful, his fourth film — and first without the collaboration of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga — is even grimmer and bleaker than his previous pictures (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), which were already major downers. But Biutiful, which has been nominated for the Best Foreigh Language Film Oscar, finds even more heart-rending ways to suggest that when life gives you lemons, you end up making lemonade that is bitter and undrinkable. Uxbal (Javier Bardem), the film’s protagonist, suffers one calamity after another and spends most of the picture’s running time trying to put Band-Aids on problems that require much sturdier repair. But Uxbal doesn’t have time to waste thinking about long-term solutions, because he has cancer and only two months to live.
Uxbal keeps that awful secret to himself, pushing forward with his various scams involving securing work for illegal immigrants in Barcelona, scrambling to set aside some money to leave behind for his two young children and struggling to make things right with his blowsy wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), whom he kicked out due to her manic bipolar mood swings. She now has taken to prostitution and sleeping with Uxbal’s no-good brother to support herself.
Taking a cue from Ken Loach, Iñárritu shoots the grimy, unpicturesque neighborhoods of Barcelona where the story takes place with a fluid, often handheld camera that rids the film of any distancing stylish artifice: Biutiful is an uncommonly intimate movie that becomes increasingly discomfiting as things go from bad to worse to unthinkable. But Uxbal continues to hustle and refuses to give up, even as his body starts to crumble, and the pain becomes too great to bear.
Biutiful has a lot to say about the way big metropolitan cities and their police forces exploit and abuse illegal immigrants, all the while pretending to uphold the law and deport the undocumented. The movie also observes the bond between a single father and his children with an utter lack of sentimentality, and it depicts a ruinous, corrosive marriage worthy of John Cassavetes. You could even argue that the picture tries to do too much: I haven’t even mentioned Uxbal’s supernatural ability to communicate with the recently deceased, a talent he uses to earn a few extra bucks from the bereaved.
The movie is unwieldy and overstuffed with subplots — and, at 2 1/2 hours, probably too much misery and sorrow for most viewers. But rarely has an actor anchored a wobbly movie so confidently as Bardem does here. He displays an astonishing range of emotions, from love to anger to shock and horror, with a conviction that is something close to awesome. His Oscar-nominated performance is always true to Uxbal’s temperament and personality — to a man who is always thinking ahead toward a solution before a problem has presented itself. Bardem’s talent has already been widely celebrated, but what he achieves in Biutiful is something close to awe inspiring: He makes a dark, gloomy film that borders on the unwatchable glow and hum with life. You endure the endless trials Uxbal suffers because Bardem makes you care — and he breaks your heart when he doesn’t succeed, which is often. Only in the final shot Iñárritu allow us a moment of unadorned, beautiful happiness — although that, too, carries the bittersweet sting of irony.
Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Eduard Fernandez, Diaryatou Daff, Cheick Ndiaye, Taisheng Cheng, Luo Jin.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Screenwriters: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone.
Producers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Jon Kilik, Fernando Bovaira.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 148 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, strong adult themes. In Spanish and Mandarin with English subtitles. Opens Friday Jan. 28 in Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset Place; in Palm Beach: Palace, Shadowood.