20 February 2011
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film comes without all the hoopla of the other Oscar favourites that grace UK cinemas this time of the year. It is always interesting to see some mind-numbingly awful kiddie films and more adult-oriented films being released around the same time (of course, adult-themed here does not mean pornographic).
Biutiful is different to its contemporaries in that it is only nominated in two of the major categories: Best Actor for Javier Bardem and Best Foreign Language Film as a representative of Mexico. On both counts, I don’t see a reason why it should be denied them.
And nobody talks about it.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a despicable human being who makes his living by exploiting the immigrant population of Barcelona. He is involved in forced labour: these poor people are forced to sleep in the basements of dilapidated buildings, only to be woken up abruptly at 6:30 am sharp to work at a construction zone. There are babies amongst them.
Uxbal is also a single-father - and a really good one at that. With their bipolar mother absent, his two young children look up to Uxbal for guidance and protection, which he provides in abundance.
Uxbal is also a psychic - he can communicate with the recently departed souls of the dead.
Uxbal has testicular cancer and he is going to die in two months.
There is a lot going on for a film, but with a generous 150 minutes of running time, Iñárritu’s film channels all of these stories with plenty of attention - with the crucial exception of the psychic storyline, which is criminally underused.
Uxbal, despite his day job, actually cares about the people he exploits. Iñárritu knows that he is treading a fine line there, but Uxbal convincingly comes up as the empathetic protagonist we all root for. His futile attempts at protecting his children and his estranged wife and his ill-advised little efforts to ensure that all those he exploits are somehow well-looked-after are heartbreaking. And he tries to be an honest man, all things considered.
Hiding his illness from everyone until the very last moment, his saintly demeanor really carries the film to a heartbreaking, but inevitable, ending.
Yet, none of these would have been possible without Bardem. If there is another actor that fits his roles as well as him, please show him / her to me. He will not win the Oscar - it is too difficult to win when you only say one word in English and you spell it wrongly.
The win should not be the benchmark for his achievement though, because this is seriously impressive work, the likes of which we rarely see. Subtle, underplayed and just about perfect. Without him, Biutiful would have caved in under its huge aspirations. With so many plotlines conveniently tied together at the end, the film could have easily been a complete disaster.
The wonderfully minimalistic surreal moments that are scattered throughout the film are fantastic, though a little redundant. That changes in the final scene, which actually may also have worked without them.
This is an impressive film - very intense, easy on the ear (great sound editing job) and with Uxbal it has a wonderfully complex character, played with great gusto and talent by Javier Bardem.