Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Stars: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib
Plot: A single father living in Barcelona is diagnosed with terminal cancer and must come to terms with his mortality whilst trying to make ends meet.
Javier Bardem’s film career has become increasingly Hollywood-orientated. Despite being a regular star of Spanish cinema since 1990, Bardem only came to prominence on a global scale with his powerful performance in No Country for Old Men as the seemingly invincible hit-man Anton Chigurh in 2007. However, every so often he returns to his native roots to play gritty characters who you would not normally associate with the suave Mr. Penelope Cruz.
Here, Bardem plays Uxbal, a down-trodden man living in Barcelona whose mortality is about to catch up with him. His estranged wife Marambra (Álvarez) has left him with two children, Ana (Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) to care for, as she is a drug addict and suffers from bi-polar disorder. Not only this, he is constantly trying to keep financially afloat, employing the services of Senegalese street sellers who are working outside the law – Uxbal has to negotiate with the local police in order to keep them out of trouble. He also has to look after a large group of Chinese immigrants who work in a sweatshop (which supplies the street sellers) and are farmed out to the local construction company as cheap labour. Whilst juggling all of these operations at once, Uxbal suddenly learns that he has terminal cancer and must resolve his issues for the sake of his children before his life comes to an untimely end.
If you’re used to swooning over Javier Bardem for a couple of hours in films such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Eat Pray Love, then you most likely will be disappointed. Biutiful is engrossing, but it’s a tough slog at nearly 150 minutes and is hardly a barrel of laughs. The character of Uxbal has so many problems and difficulties to overcome, that there is barely a second of light-hearted banter allowed throughout the entire film. Bardem won many plaudits for his performance – he lost out to Colin Firth at the Academy Awards – and it is clear that Biutiful was geared up to be Oscar bait, plunging the depths of despair in its exploration of life, death, love, guilt and the meaning of fatherhood.
González Iñárritu’s direction creates a very claustrophobic perspective of the usually bright and breezy cultural side of Barcelona, which we rarely see. The dark alleyways and small, cluttered apartments which typify the film set the scene early on, giving the immediate impression that a deep emotional investment in Uxbal’s predicament will be required. The camera hardly leaves Bardem for a second – his performance is very involving and it is easy to see why he was nominated for Best Actor at numerous award ceremonies.
Biutiful is not aimed at a mass audience and will not be to everyone’s taste, but despite an overlong running time and a rather fractured plot which meanders from one quandary to the next, you may find amongst the angst and depressing issues one of Bardem’s most affecting roles.