Javier Bardem as Uxbal
Maricel Alvarez as Marambra
Hanaa Bouchaib as Maramba
Guillermo Estrella as Mateo
Eduard Fernandez as Tito
Cheikh Ndiaye as Edweme
Diaryatou Daff as Ige
Cheng Tai Shen as Hai
Luo Jin as Liwei
George Chibuikwem Chukwuma as Samuel
Lang Sofia Lin as Li
Are you a glass half empty or a glass half full kind of person? Well you’re wrong. As, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel,” “21 Grams”) likes to tell us over and over, there is no glass at all. His bleak view of the world, where the best we can hope for is a tiny glimmer of hope and life as if from a distant star that you can only see on a clear night, reaches its apotheosis in “Biutiful.”
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a scammer on the streets of Barcelona, trying to make ends meet however he can in order to provide for himself and his two children (Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella). He’s gotten himself mixed up as the middle-man for a pair of Chinese sweatshop owners (Cheng Tai Shen, Luo Jin), helping them sell knock off purses on the streets and lease cheap labor as construction workers.
It’s not the brightest of lives; in fact it’s just about as far from bright as you can get. Growing up poor, without parents, Uxbal truly is doing the best he can but in an uncaring world where the connections between human beings are accidental at best and more often harmful than kind, his best is often just enough to keep the darkness at bay. Also, he talks to the dead.
As close as someone has gotten to a filmic Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, “Biutful” is the epitome of harrowing. Manic depressives should under no circumstances watch this film.
In typical Inarritu fashion, no matter bad things seem when they begin, there is still plenty of room for them to go down. When Uxbal learns that his previous life as a drug addict and alcoholic has finally caught up with him in the form of advanced liver cancer, he dedicates himself to making sure his children are taken care of after he’s gone. His life being what it is, those choice are few and not particularly appetizing, such as getting back together with his ex-wife, who is unfortunately an alcoholic bi-polar semi-suicidal mess. Most of Uxbal’s other choices are similarly unfortunate. In fact, everything he does has a tendency to make matters worse and worse, no matter his intentions.
For all of Inarritu’s skill as a director, none of this would work if Bardem wouldn’t so good as Uxbal. For all the weight that is laid on him, for all the bad things lying in his past his face intimates to us, he keeps moving forward, keeps trying to find a brighter tomorrow despite all of the experience his life has given him. Despite how easy it would be for Uxbal, and the film in general, to fall into soap operatic theatrics and over-emoting, Bardem is in complete control from beginning to end. With his slow, depressive, expressive delivery he explains every moment of Uxbal’s life to us without ever saying anything about it.
In fact the performances in general are fine, though compared to with Bardem no one else is quite as interesting or able to connect to the audience. That’s not entirely a flaw; everyone else in the film is a reflection of Uxbal and for the most part the performances reflect that, though Maricel Alvarez as his former wife and the love of his life pushes the edge of overdone. Many of the other characters are left twisting somewhat by the end; despite the various subplots filling out the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time, many are left as unresolved as the relationships in Uxbal’s life.
Outside of the performances, and despite the great skill and craft involved in “Biutiful,” there’s not a great deal to enjoy in the film. Inarritu does not mean his title ironically, he does suggest that as dark as life may get there is something bright and worthwhile at the end of, but you really have to work for it and boy does he make you work.
“Biutiful” is a very dark and, unfortunately, realistic depiction of the problems inherent in human connections – problems facing both the people who are unable or uninterested in knowing others and the worse problems for the individuals who are trying to reach out. What small amounts of hope it offers may be too few and too late for most viewers to get to the end. It’s worth the trip for Bardem’s soul-bearing performance if nothing else, but it’s not easy viewing by any measure. Be warned.