Biutiful (***½ / ****)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
To we moviegoers, “plotless” is usually a four-letter word. But though we’re less than two months into the new year, the better pictures I’ve viewed so far haven’t necessarily been about having a plot as much as being a gritty testament to the human spirit. Biutiful joins Another Year and The Way Back in such company.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful is told from the perspective of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a hound-faced low-level criminal living in a racially-mixed Barcelona slum, and who has quite a few issues on his plate. He’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer – which has him regularly urinating blood – and is separated from his bipolar wife (Maricel Alvarez), who, to add insult to injury, is shacking up with his brother. While Uxbal cares for his two young children in less than stellar conditions, he tries to do likewise to a group of undocumented Chinese sweatshop workers harbored inside a warehouse, who make knockoff handbags that are sold by African street vendors. And then there’s the regular forking over of hush money to the police on the side.
All this with the unshakable shadow of death constantly looming overhead like a cloud, ready to douse any last feelings of happiness during his final days.
Receiving a Best Actor Oscar nomination – which, unfortunately, he won’t win – for his magnificent performance, Bardem makes his character sympathetic without being heavy-handed, that it often overshadows his shady dealings. Lest we forget, Uxbal is no angel by any means. But it doesn’t matter at all, due to the effortless grace in which he portrays the disheveled protagonist who realizes that being a do-gooder in a bad world is pretty much impossible. Compare that to the other new release, The Mechanic, in which we were given a standard Good Guy in which any semblance of emotional investment was nonexistent.
The consequences of Uxbal’s efforts are often disastrous. This eventually comes to a head in an astonishing scene where you will immediately realize what has happened but it won’t lessen its impact. It’s that powerful that exercising restraint in describing it in depth is proving most tenuous.
Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography illustrates the tension of the characters; besides the typical shaky handhelds during heated dialogue exchanges, we also feel a character’s sense of panic as he rapidly paces back and forth. When Uxbal and his estranged wife fight at home over custody of their young son, we watch from a distance alongside his distressed ten-year-old sister. He also treats the bleak Barcelona urban landscape like another actor, capturing its persistently foreboding mood without the aid of a dominant score, especially during a breathtaking segment of a lengthy foot chase in which the African hustlers unsuccessfully attempt to evade arrest by pursuing police officers. Prieto often dishes up reminders that this definitely isn’t your touristy Barcelona; for instance, the camera lingers on a nondescript homeless man sleeping in an alley outside Uxbal’s apartment building.
As Uxbal plods through the nighttime neon jungle, bizarre tinnitus-like sounds combine with blurs of fluorescent light as his disease slowly continues to erode his senses, while a nightclub is completely swathed in a sea of psychedelic aquamarine light, complete with strippers sporting prosthetic breasts on their backsides.
Not only is the film overlong at two and a half hours, but Inarritu often makes the mistake of shifting the spotlight from Uxbal to other supporting characters, such as a homosexual relationship between a Chinese sweatshop overseer and his partner, which felt added in the name of shock value. There’s also a brief subplot involving a kind-hearted Senegalese woman, Ige (Diaryatou Daff), whose hustler son is facing deportation; she later serves as a nanny for Uxbal’s children for extra cash. Biutiful is completely Bardem’s film that I didn’t want it to be shared with anybody else.
If it feels like I’ve dwelt on Bardem a little too much in this review, I apologize. Such is his indelibility that without his presence, Biutiful would still be a formidable crime drama, but you still sense that something would be missing. Despite my nitpicking, it stands as a testament to Inarritu’s crisp direction – here aided by fellow Latin film heavyweights Alfonso Cuaròn and Guillermo del Toro – that he lays out his entire deck without fooling us with any false glamour all too prevalent in this genre. No fancy suits, no expensive cars, mind-numbing shootouts or cheap one-liners. Just the ugly final chapter in the life of an unexceptional man mired in an ugly trade in his ugly everyday surroundings. And what a biutiful tale it is.
©2011 Jane F. Carlson