Fierce morality vs. mortality in haunting ‘Biutiful’
How long is long enough to save the world? Even the miniscule portion of your immediate world where you might actually be able to make an impact? This is the dilemma faced by the hard-luck protagonist played with furious grace by the great Javier Bardem in Biutiful, a man clawing a living out of the urban underbelly of Barcelona who discovers he has only a short time left to straighten out his messy life for the sake of his beloved children. Brooding and heartfelt, it’s a dark, yet tender vision of life on the fringe from the always provocative Alejandro González Iñárritu.
In his three impressive previous films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel), Iñárritu displays his concern for the precarious state of the human condition, and the many ways a person can go astray—due to poverty, oppression, or corruption from without or within. Yet the resilience of the human species and our nobler aspirations to morality fascinates Iñárritu as well. In Biutiful, this duality between our best and lesser selves is symbolized by the notion of souls peeling away at the moment of death; some are ready to go, others linger, desperately seeking redemption.
It’s the gift—or curse—of 40-year-old Uxbal (Bardem) that he can hear and converse with these soon-to-depart souls. One of the ways he scrapes together extra dinero is at the funeral home, trying to help unquiet spirits transition to the beyond at the request of their bereaved families, an emotionally grueling service, for which he feels guilty getting paid. But he does whatever it takes to provide stability for his 10-year-old daughter and little boy. A dedicated father who never knew his own dad (an escapee from Franco’s regime), Uxbal is raising his kids pretty much on his own.
His other means of income involve various protection rackets around the city between crooked cops, illegal immigrants, and the shady characters who employ them. Iñárritu is attuned to the plight of immigrants struggling to make it in the West: Senegalese vendors selling jewelry and trinkets in the street (and dealing drugs on the side); dozens of Chinese laborers, including women and children, sleeping like sardines in a warehouse basement, deployed by day to a construction site or a sweatshop for slave wages. Uxbal is more personally involved with some of them than he should be (especially where children are involved), making small, quixotic gestures to help better their grim circumstances when he can. In a milieu of callous corruption, Uxbal’s fierce, innate decency is a small miracle.
The news that he himself has only a scant month or two left to live sends Uxbal into tailspin. Against his better judgment (in a few eloquent scenes aching with hope and futility), he tries to patch things up with his alcoholic, bipolar ex-wife (Maricel Alvarez), who’s too much of a party girl to cope with fidelity or motherhood. His sleazeball brother (Eduard Fernández) is no help either. As always, Uxbal has only his own inner resources to rely on as he struggles to make sure his children will be cared for after he’s gone.
Bardem gives a performance of towering intensity, wry humor, and tenderness. One of the cinema’s greatest, most imposing faces, he’s onscreen virtually every moment and you can’t take your eyes of him, whether he’s teasing or comforting his kids, or struggling to resist his own weaker impulses. The look of the film combines flashy, gritty urbanscapes with marvelously poetic images, like the shadowy moths fluttering at the ceiling, or a sudden swarm of black birds against a twilit sky to suggest the transitioning spirits Uxbal has not been able to help.
In a world devoid of moral authority, Uxbal’s only solace comes from a middle-aged spiritualist friend; in two fleet, compelling scenes, she speaks truth to him on the inevitable cycles of life and death. A lovely prologue/epilogue about the legacy fathers leave for their children (the same sequence, shot from different POVs) begins and ends the story, completing the circle of life around one man whose determination to cling to his better nature, against all odds, becomes profound in Iñárritu’s haunting, deeply layered film.
★★★1/2 (out of four)
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With Javier Bardem and Maricel Alvarez. Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, and Nicolás Giacobone. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 148 minutes.