Biutiful* Review

Biutiful film still


Dark and difficult, but Javier Bardem is sensational.

Alejandro González Iñárritu is a global citizen. From Japan to North Africa via Mexico, California and now Barcelona, his films are invested in the meaning and condition of our twenty-first-century lives. It is a grand undertaking, this social archaeology, and it is one that exists on the very edge of sententiousness and self-importance.

Biutiful flirts with both, but this elegiac fable has such compassion and moral purpose that it’s possible – necessary, perhaps – to forgive its lapses into cliché and contrivance.

Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a small-time grifter connected to illegal Chinese labour. Drifting between the squalid warehouse where the immigrants live in abject conditions, the streets of the city’s shopping district where African hucksters ply their trade, and the tiny apartment he shares with his two kids, Uxbal’s life is a portrait of social decay and economic despair.

But he is also a spiritualist who communes with the dead, a skill that throws his own fate into sharp relief when Uxbal is diagnosed with cancer. Fearful of what the future may hold for his children without him, Uxbal attempts to put his affairs in order, only for tragedy and disaster to intrude.

This is feel-bad cinema at its most intense and unforgiving. Iñárritu drops a veil of pitch-black desolation across the screen and leaves it there, offset by stolen moments of tenderness between Uxbal and Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) – an African woman to whom he feels a personal obligation – but without any comforting interludes of humour.

Do we believe that this is the reality of life for people like Uxbal – a debilitating struggle in which misery is piled on top of anguish? Certainly, it feels hard to credit the sheer weight of misfortune that collapses on his shoulders. Or is it mere arrogance to question the cycle of economic oppression from the safe side of a cinema screen?

Perhaps it’s simply that we don’t want to see what Iñárritu has to show us; the wafer thin surface that keeps us from falling through the cracks. At least here, separated from long-time screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu has broken free of his own fractured formula to present a more straightforward drama in which misery accumulates like poison gas.

In this endeavour, he is memorably supported by Bardem, who offers his cavernous face to Iñárritu’s camera like a cartographer etching some unknowable map. Bardem, all weary eyes and sculpted hollows, brings a strange kind of nobility to Uxbal’s suffering.

Though he may be responsible for terrible things, it’s impossible not to be swayed by his charisma, his energy, the indomitable will to do something right, even as everything falls apart around him.

While his contemporaries enjoy the fruits of the Hollywood system, a decade on from Amores Perros, Iñárritu is still making films on his own terms. Biutiful is bruising, provocative and uncompromising. The director may retain his faith in people – in our capacity for redemption – but his audience, like Uxbal, will have to search hard to find it.

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