Biutiful is an exhausting portrayal of the complex webs we weave in life, and then struggle desperately to untangle in the wake of a crisis.
That’s not to say it’s not worth watching, but it’s probably not one for someone who’s feeling a little bit…fragile. Biutiful has been nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at a whole host of award ceremonies – and perhaps it is – but Sunday afternoon feel-good it ain’t.
Spanish actor, Javier Bardem, was critically acclaimed for his performance in 2007’s No Country for Old Men before playing the bilingual smoothie Juan Antonio in Woody Allen‘s Vicky Christina Barcelona. This time around, he gives an undeniably intense and, at times, fairly uncomfortable performance as a single father, Uxbal, desperately trying to get his affairs in order after a diagnosis with cancer gives him just two months to live.
This film manages to constantly jar against where you want it to go. If this was director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s intention, it is certainly impressive, if not it’s a little unpleasant. Yes, the central predicament of the plot is Uxbal’s terminal illness, but the tragedy is scattered elsewhere – everywhere – throughout the film. There’s the plight of the Senegalese family-man (and drug dealer) who is about to deported, the terrible living and working conditions endured by illegal Chinese factory workers, the erratic and abusive behaviour of an alcoholic mother and the corruption of the city’s police force – all of which merely reside on the surface of this film’s deeper, darker themes.
It’s no wonder, then, that this film has already been accused of being overloaded with subplots. However, Bardem does a exceptional job of holding them all together and is saved, to a certain extent, by the fact that his character is entirely believable as Biutiful‘s tragic hero. Uxbal is a good and loving man, but he is flawed through and through, which is precisely what makes him so interesting to watch.
Biutiful might take Bardem back to his native language, but the Barcelona we’re presented with is a world away from where we last saw him in Vicky Christina. The flats are small and grim, and shared by too many people. The streets are dirty and dangerous, and powered by a criminal underworld. That said, visually, it’s not quite as bleak as it sounds. There are just enough moments of ice cream and dancing and snow to make this film bearable. And, of course, there’s Maricel Alvarez who, in her first major film performance, makes a stunning début. Her role as Uxbal’s troubled partner provides, perhaps, the most enjoyable whirlwind of chaos within the world he is urgently trying to calm down.
However, much like it’s characters, this film is far from perfect. One of the biggest risks it takes is the inclusion of Uxbal’s supernatural spiritualism, which manifests itself on-screen by showing dead people floating sinisterly against the ceiling. Yes, really. But luckily, thanks to a few subtle, corner-of-your-eye shots, it pays off and actually works remarkably well. On the other hand, the fact that the homosexual relationship of a Chinese trafficker is never properly explained or explored, makes it’s association with human depravity pointless and even offensive.
Biutiful takes you on a journey, but don’t expect it to be an easy ride. In fact, about halfway through it reaches a point where you want to get off; there the ability re-order life’s most complex circumstances still seems possible. But then, in terms of film-making, that would be nothing new. Instead, Biutiful drags you kicking and screaming beyond that point, for a look at what might be salvageable if everything you knew were to fall apart. I’d watch it again… but not for a bit.
Biutiful is released in UK cinemas on 28th January 2011.