BIUTIFUL —– director Alejandro González Iñárittu followed his celebrated ‘Death Trio’ of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel with this searing slice-of-sad-lives drama set in the less-than-beautiful side of Barcelona, where whatever ladder rungs there are to climb are rickety at best. The director conceived the story, then co-wrote the screenplay with Armando Bó and Nicolás Giacobone. Like the earlier films, it isn’t any skip through a park, but Iñárritu allows for more heart and depth than before; as such, character-driven rather than plot-centric, this carries a more affecting emotional punch, and the acting is stellar. Javier Bardem’s towering performance drew an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and the film was one of Academy’s nominees for Best Foreign Film of 2010.
“My love, what you see over there aren’t stars. It’s your nervous system.”
Uxbal’s (Bardem) life in his lowly Barcelona apartment isn’t just falling apart, it’s ending; his cancer will claim him in a few months. Hoping she’ll take care of their two young kids, ‘Ana’ and ‘Mateo’ (Hanna Bouchaib & Guillermo Estrella), he tries to give his estranged wife ‘Marambra’ (Maricel Álvarez) another chance, even though she’s a bipolar alcoholic who sidelines as a hooker. Uxbal has barely made ends meet by procuring work for illegal Chinese immigrants, used by their venal sponsors to forge designer goods, in turn sold on the street by African immigrants, who Uxbal tries to protect from the corrupt cops. He’s basically a good man, but his web of unhealthy relationships and his approaching exit are fate-bound to reach a literally terminal velocity.
Bardem is spellbinding as the conflicted, afflicted hero. This must have been an exhausting acting journey: his character struggles under the weight of dutiful fatherhood, sundered love and intimate betrayal, braced by innate spirituality and faced by impending doom, trying to balance crime, responsibility, duty, guilt and mortality. Javier is flat-out One of the Greats. *
Along with the exemplary work from a fearless Álvarez (stage and film actress, director, choreographer and curator from Argentina) and the two crucially well-chosen kids (both novices) other fine work backing up the star comes from Eduard Fernández, as’ Tito’, Uxbal’s duplicitous older brother, and Diarietou Daff as ‘Ige’, a desperate Senegalese immigrant who comes to play a vital role in Uxbal’s plans. Daff was herself an actual immigrant from Senegal, and was nearly deported during filming (her story has a happy ending worth your searching out).
On the score, Gustavo Santaolalla make some unusual and effective choices, and Rodrigo Prieto’s camera, managing to be at once harsh and delicate, puts you so vitally into the room with the characters you can feel their breath.
Apart from praising Bardem, critics oddly didn’t rate this as highly as the director’s showier Babel (they were wrong), and carrying a cost of 35,000,000 but only grossing $25,148,000, it ranked just 173rd place among the years releases.**
With Cheikh Ndiaye, Cheng Tai Shen, Jin Lou, Lang Sofia Lin and Ana Wegener. 148 minutes.
* Bardem: “This is the heaviest movie I’ve done in my life and one of the heaviest I will ever do…It’s not the kind of film where you deliver the lines and go back to your hotel to sleep. This is a personal journey. You give yourself up in the name of the role and pray to survive….When you have this kind of material, you know you’re going to jump into an ocean of doubts and fears. You want to do it right, to do it justice. You want to give yourself completely over to it….There was something there that I understood emotionally, intellectually, I wanted to take that risk, to see if I could rob those moments that don’t belong to me, that you hope will never belong to you.”
** Biutiful joined a large number of very fine 2010 pictures that did not receive their due from the public: Tamara Drewe, In A Better World, The Trip, Wild Target, The Runaways, Of Gods And Men, Rabbit Hole, The Way, Let Me In, Winter’s Bone, Cyrus, Incendies, The Way Back, Fair Game…