Shot in an entirely unglamorous Barcelona setting, Biutiful is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fourth film; a bleak drama that hinges on a brilliant performance by Javier Bardem.
Returning to Spanish for this effort (though, as in Babel, other languages are spoken – part of Iñárritu’s ongoing fascination with communication between cultures) Bardem stars as Uxbal, a good-hearted man whose involvement in crime is simply one of the many burdens he has to carry. Bardem is put through a lot in this film. It is an immense credit to him that he doesn’t collapse under the weight of his director’s story, because boy, things aren’t going well for him.
On the one side he must deal with his criminal investments, which are seemingly the only way he can provide for his young family, but also offer up new moral quandaries. Should he, for example, allow his friend’s building site to hire a collection of cut-price Chinese novices – for which he will take a cut – rather than expensive trained staff? Uxbal faces endless questions like this; the film is preoccupied with issues concerning who is taking advantage of who, and what justifications they might have. Then, at home, he must deal with poor living conditions, his two young children (strong turns from Guillermo Estrella and Hanaa Bouchaib) and their estranged, bipolar mother (Maricel Álvarez). As if that wasn’t enough, Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal cancer not long after the film begins. Then things start to get really bad.
The film’s closing dedication makes clear Iñárritu’s intention for Biutiful: this is a film about fathers – dedicated to the director’s own – and about fatherhood. It is also about death and hardship; about dealing with things. In Bardem’s hands (or rather, on his shoulders), the weight of the bleakness never completely overtakes the film. If it had, it would have been a failure. Iñárritu’s Barcelona slums are shot well and possess vivid detail; the directorial style is intrusive and personal but never overbearing. Thanks to the stark realism on display, Iñárritu’s sporadic moments of magical realism and visual symbolism are blunt but effective. Though there are a lot of supporting characters, unlike with Iñárritu’s previous films there are no cross-cuts and no wild narrative or chronological shifts. Those characters are there because Uxbal is there, and his story is linear.
The performances are uniformly strong, the film is well directed, so is this a triumphant return to form for the director of Amores Perros and 21 Grams after the less successful Babel? In part it is, in part it isn’t. There is too much in the film – too many balls to juggle – and the layers of misery end up feeling a little too didactic. It’s overlong and, while it rarely feels unnecessarily ponderous, the final third is dragged out. The film takes itself extremely seriously and occasionally this leads to a sense of being told by the director how we are supposed to react to events, rather than simply being allowed to watch them.
But Biutiful is still a good film. Its strengths for the most part outweigh its flaws, and Bardem makes Uxbal a thoroughly convincin g protagonist. It’s bleak, certainly, but not despairing, although it is indicative of the film’s tone that one final, redemptive act is rendered ambiguously through dirty glass.