Cancer, child abuse, drugs, exploited Chinese workers and more are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the misery writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful inflicts on its characters. However, the upside to this story is the light that comes out of the darkness, something I would say is a change of pace from Inarritu’s two previous films, Babel and 21 Grams.
Biutiful is a soulful and spiritual journey centering on Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem with a performance almost assured an Oscar nomination. Uxbal is a contradictive and hypocritical character with similar responsibilities to so many of us. Currently, his primary responsibility is to his two young children. For the most part, raising them on his own following his separation from their bi-polar mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), he walks them to school before setting out on his daily agenda.
Each new day could call for fighting for better living conditions for the Chinese immigrants being exploited as cheap labor, accepting payment for freeing the souls of the recently deceased or paying the cops to stay off the backs of African street vendors. Uxbal fights for the rights of the underprivileged all while benefiting from their exploitation. You can see he’s tormented, but that isn’t all he has to contend with.
He’s been recently diagnosed with cancer, which causes the fatherly instincts in him to emerge to an even greater level. After all, not only does he play father to his children he must also look out for the lives of the people he’s been caring for, and making money off of, on a daily basis. Things go deeper than that, but some things are best left to be found on your own.
Biutiful is an exploration of one man’s spiritual journey and for as much as death guides the majority of this story, it’s the preservation and caring for the life that will remain once we pass on that makes it the excellent piece of filmmaking it is. Inarritu has bookended this piece brilliantly and it was in the final 30 minutes or so that he finally started pulling me out of the deep depression the film seems it will never come out of. Never before has a birthday celebration been such a welcomed on screen moment, and once the candles are lit this film goes from being a technically proficient downer to an outright magnificent feature.
As I already said, Bardem is extraordinary as Uxbal. The emotional range he has as an actor was tested in every scene and he absolutely never comes off as someone trying to emote… he just does. The same can be said for the rest of the cast as everyone involved deserves a round of applause, including the third act introduction of Ige (Diaryatou Daft), an African woman whose husband is being deported back to Senegal leaving her and her child homeless and alone. Daft lifts plenty of heavy weight in the film’s final moments and does so with an effortless smile helping the film dig its way out of the dark and into the light.
Inarritu has been working on Biutiful for what seems like forever, going into production in late 2008 and finishing in early 2009. He’s put his heart and soul into not only the script but the entire project and I expect it will pay off come early 2011. While Bardem is a top contender for a Best Actor Oscar nomination, I can’t see Inarritu’s direction and script being overlooked and editing and cinematography nominations seem just as likely.
Biutiful will primarily be enjoyed by the art house crowd seeing how this one doesn’t have names such as Brad Pitt or Cate Blanchett to bank on, which certainly helped the deeply depressing Babel do better at the box-office than its subject matter would typically allow. However, Bardem’s name may bring in a couple of stragglers, but I predict anyone that sees this will have an emotional response to the film’s ending that will leave many in tears.
Biutiful is In Competition at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival and will be included in the voting for the Palme d’Or.