Javier Bardem as Uxbal in Biutiful
The director of Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is known for creating poetic, powerful cinematic projects. His past films, Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), and Babel (2006), have earned the director much critical acclaim and commercial success. Though Biutiful has the magical Iñárritu ingredients for success—somber storyline, mesmerizing actors, gritty city landscape—this film fails to match its predecessors’ excellence.
In Biutiful, Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a single father of two living in Barcelona, who survives via black market business practices: Managing professional street peddlers and overseeing the trafficking of illegal immigrant laborers. In addition to his underworld activities, Uxbal also works as a medium, and is hired by local families to communicate with their recently deceased loved ones. Bardem’s character soon faces his own mortality, when he is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, and learns he has only a few months left to live. Once he learns his fate, Uxbal must make peace with those around him, and most importantly, with himself.
Biutiful’s title is ironic, as this film’s imagery is, frankly, really ugly. Barcelona looks wholly unappealing, with its dingy storefronts, seedy nightclubs, crime-ridden streets. The characters match their landscape: the men are dirty, sweaty, and boorish, and the women wear their makeup smeared, their hair in mousey highlights, and their clothes in tattered disrepair. Perhaps the most un-“biutiful” imagery in the film is Bardem’s ghastly physical presence. Uxbal’s body gradually becomes ravaged by his aggressive cancer, and we see all of the unpleasant side-effects. I had to turn away from the screen on multiple occasions because of the extreme nature of Uxbal’s physical condition.
The film’s plot and themes share the ugliness of its imagery. Instead of achieving poetry, Iñárritu presents a convoluted film: A muddled story, under-developed characters, and perplexing plot moments. Biutiful differs from Iñárritu’s previous films, as it features one central plotline—Uxbal’s story—instead of multiple, intersecting narratives. We see Uxbal’s complex bond with his bipolar ex-wife, fascination with his deceased father, close-knit connection with a peddler’s family, tumultuous business alliance with a pair of Chinese businessmen, and tenuous relationship with his irresponsible brother; however, none of these stories is ever fleshed out. Perhaps the director should have stuck to his previous films’ storytelling formula, as this film never gels into a solid, comprehensible piece. By the end, I felt as if I had been dragged through an emotionally and visually wrenching experience, but I had little empathy for or connection to the characters and story.
Biutiful director Alejandro González Iñárritu
The film’s saving grace is its star, the magnificent Javier Bardem. In a departure from his recent, dashing leading man roles, (the seductive Felipe in Eat Pray Love, and the irresistible Juan Antonio in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Bardem descends into despair as the tragic hero, Uxbal. Though his character feels deep affection for his family and close friends, he struggles to find his way in a morally corrupt world. Bardem’s commitment to the role makes the film watchable. When I felt lost in the jumbled plot, I focused on Bardem’s performance, and found myself utterly mesmerized. With the subtlety of a downward glance, and the slightest quiver in his voice, the actor creates an unforgettable portrait of an emotionally and physically damaged man. His recent Oscar nomination for Best Actor is more than deserved.
Though Biutiful was a disappointment, Iñárritu is still a fascinating, thought-provoking filmmaker. I look forward to seeing where he takes his next project. More importantly, I look forward to seeing the Biutiful lead actor NOT as the sickly Uxbal, but as the sexy Javier in a tuxedo on the Oscar red carpet!