Javier Bardem, as Uxbal, negotiates the grim side of Barcelona.
It’s a shame that Biutiful is the least heralded and successful film of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), because it is unquestionably his best film, not to mention one of the great moving films of the new century.
His previous three films were all written by Guillermo Arriaga, who has a penchant for the gimmicky interlocking stories trick. Let’s call it the Crash (after the insipid Paul Haggis film) symptom: a movie uses absurd coincidences as a cheap way to make broad strokes about the Human Condition. These movies do extremely well come awards time because they are such an easy and packaged approach to difficult, brutal themes.
Iñárritu has always been a must-see director, but like a talented musician that overstuffs his albums with bombast, he makes ultra-serious films that have always been a bit silly. Until now. Biutiful, his first break with Arriaga, is his most personal, straightforward, and devastating film.
Biutiful take places in the gritty, crowded corners of Barcelona. I love foreign films that present the underbelly of their countries, since so many European exports serve as tourist ads. Biutiful concerns itself with the underclass, the immigrants who live on top of each other and scrabble together undocumented labor to survive. At the center of this is Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a haunted, noble soul who is a hustler of all trades. Uxbal connects Chinese laborers to crooked development projects, coordinates Senegalese knock-off street merchants, and, for a little extra cash on the side, will talk to the recently deceased to put their families at ease.
Yes, Uxbal can talk to the dead. This risky bit of magical realism in a pretty brutal and unforgiving film pays off—Uxbal’s Job-like suffering takes on a spiritual dimension that softens the film’s darkness. In addition to the grim world Uxbal works in, he is also dying of prostate cancer, and dealing with his bi-polar alcoholic wife and his sleazy brother. If this sounds like a sad, bleak movie, well, it is. That’s what Iñárritu does. But Biutiful is also ecstatically heartfelt. Uxbal has a wonderful relationship with his children, his wife, and the immigrants he both befriends and exploits. Where previous Iñárritu movies were populated with characters that felt two-dimensional—canvasses for weighty, symbolic tragedy to be painted on, Biutiful is filled with flawed, messy, empathetic people.
At the center is Bardem. While Colin Firth’s justifiably lauded performance probably has the Oscar sealed up, I wish Bardem would win. His Uxbal is one of the great human beings in film, simultaneously epic and sympathetic.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Maricel Alvarez as Uxbal’s unstable wife Marambra (a performance near Gena Rowlands in terms of convincing craziness).
Like all of Iñárritu’s films, Biutiful is a stunning film technically—the cinematography captures the majestic, sprawling, and dirty city of Barcelona with both an ethereal creativity and tactile claustrophobia. The score by master mood-maker Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain) is his most daring and adventurous to date.
Biutiful wasn’t released outside of New York and Los Angeles until 2011, so I didn’t get to include it in my best of 2010 list. It is easily one of the two or three best films of 2010, a wrenching meditation on death, family, and globalism. A
See movie reviews for all films reviewed in The Iowa Source.