A middle-aged grifter living amongst Barcelonas criminal underworld, trying to raise two young children, Uxbal (Bardem) is blessed/cursed with a psychic ability to see the spirits of the dead. Diagnosed with cancer, he is given two months to live, and se
With their Oscar nomination for 2006’s Babel, the interlinked narratives of Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu had reached an impasse. Now solo, Iñárritu has ditched the time-scrambling narratives and travelogue editing. Biutiful is set in Barcelona and stars Javier Bardem. It’s the same city and lead actor as in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and whether by fluke or design, that’s a nice detail, as if Iñárritu were presenting the grim horror behind Woody Allen’s travelogue soufflé. This Barcelona is a lawless underworld, populated by immigrants and ghosts, flightless souls caught between life and death who whisper final confessions to black market grifter Uxbal, who then passes on the information to the mourning families, for cash.
Moving as if carrying a profound spiritual weight, Bardem imbues Uxbal’s underworld dealings with a weary dignity, adding complexity, depth and quiet humanity to a role that could so easily have been ‘unlucky dying criminal’.
Described as modern parables, Iñárritu’s ‘Arriaga trilogy’ often felt like showreels of merciless Fate, the high-end Final Destination. Here, Biutiful’s focus on a single location and character has a profound effect. Filmed with handheld cameras, saturated in the blues and oranges of urban sunsets, Uxbal’s progress through this phantasmal ghetto, along the margins of life and death, is like watching some ‘sovereign debt’ Pilgrim’s Progress, an everyman in extremis battling through an apocalyptic modern Europe.
Be warned, however: it is a battle. Iñárritu’s split with Arriaga hasn’t lessened his love of ill fortune. The mostly non-professional cast are excellent, but the film’s parade of callousness and ruination makes for heavy going: those schooled in 1970s public information films will know what happens when Uxbal installs cheap gas fires in the basement quarters of some Chinese sweat-shop workers.
But, in the end, the film’s eerie mood of magical realism and Bardem’s enigmatically human performance edges Biutiful away from the grim fatalism of yore and towards a new kind of greatness.
Iñárritu has made a modern classical tragedy and, in Javier Bardem, he has found his first authentic hero; a character caught up in an intricate web of events he cannot extricate himself from.