DVD Review: Powerful films can take us to unvarnished, unromanticized places we may not want to go, and yet make the experience something enriching, cathartic, and perhaps even uplifting. In its strongest moments, the Best Foreign Film nominee Biutiful does exactly that, thanks to lead actor Javier Bardem.
In Biutiful, the fourth film from Mexican writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), Javier Bardem gives an Oscar-nominated performance that’s heartbreaking and raw but also so nuanced and honest it seems to single-handedly reflect and define our collective fragile, damaged humanity.
Bardem (Eat Pray Love, Oscar-winner for No Country for Old Men) is Uxbal, a low-level, low-life criminal scraping out a living on the mean streets of modern Barcelona, Spain. These isn’t the sun-drenched tourist side of Spain, and Uxbal’s no sharp-dressed mobster on the rise, but just another broken-down street criminal doing whatever it takes to feed and house his two young children. That includes dealing drugs, brokering cheap immigrant labor deals, and selling his services as an Afterlife medium to bereaved families.
Uxbal is not glamorous, nor is he particularly moral or honorable. He slumps into himself like his core has been hollowed, and his only redeeming qualities are his devotion to raising his children and glimpses of a nobler heart that seems to only make life in the poverty stricken underworld all the more painful.
So when he’s diagnosed with late-stage, terminal prostate cancer and given a few months to live, Uxbal finds himself faced with the immediate problem of how to make sure his son and daughter are taken care of when he’s gone. (He also works hard to keep the information from them.)
The kids’ sometimes-absent mother (Hanaa Bouchaib) has a history of self-destructive depression that makes her at best an unreliable caretaker (at worst, dangerous). And in Uxbal’s seedy, desperate, and sometimes harrowing environment, we see all too clearly where young children end up if left unprotected.
The urgency of Uxbal’s worldly situation is also set against those existential fears and questions everyone eventually grabbles with in the face of inescapable mortality. Have I lived my life as best I could? Can I grasp the notion of my existence coming to an end? And what will be left of me and my time here when I’m gone?
When it comes to showing all that and more, you couldn’t ask for a better face than Bardem’s. Those sunken, sensitive eyes of his hang full of sad awareness of life’s suffering, but also gleam with a hopeful understanding of its deeper mysteries.
Weary and knowing, the actor gives us so much of Uxbal’s inner and outward struggles it’s hard to imagine the film, which could have easily slid into nothing but despair, working without him.
As seen in Babel and 21 Grams, Iñárritu loves himself a good wallow in grief and misery. But thanks to Bardem and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s rich, phantasmagoric eye for gritty decay, Biutiful floats along almost like a dream, albeit one tethered to the harshest of realities.
Under all the immoral clamor and chaos of Uxbal’s Barcelona, Iñárritu finds a quiet, simple purity of existence. In doing so, Biutiful asks us to sympathize with a character it would be easy to blame or ignore, and to see humanity and beauty in a world and life that too often feels dauntingly ugly.