The vast majority of us spend our lives trying to be good people. We try and do right by our friends, our family and even ourselves. If we have the means we even try and help strangers. The truth is, however, that we simply don’t have much control. We’re often betrayed by the ones we love and trust. It’s an eternal struggle and one that Alejandro González Iñárritu captures brilliantly in Biutiful.
At the center of it all is Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem. A father of two, he tries to get everything in his life in order after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a couple months to live. He works to provide illegal immigrants with jobs, but his co-workers exploit them in any way they can. He tries to reestablish a life with his estranged wife, but their relationship is marred by her bi-polar disorder and addictions. With his time running out, Uxbal must find a way to get everything settled so that he can die in peace.
To put it directly, the film hinges on Bardem’s performance and excels because of it. Demanded to be all over the place emotionally, from extreme grief to goofy dad, the Spanish actor is simply flawless. Uxbal is a character that carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and anything less than what Bardem brought to the table would have left the character crushed and the audience wallowing in gloom. Instead, Uxbal’s strength keeps the audience engaged and hopeful, even as everything – and I mean everything – crumbles into dust.
If the above wasn’t an indication, Biutiful isn’t your casual Saturday night film. In fact, as per usual with Iñárritu’s work, it probably wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to pop a few Xanax before you see it. Though slow to start, once the story picks up its momentum it becomes an unstoppable force that the audience really has to brace itself for. To that same point, though, the movie’s greatest weakness is its length, clocking in just short of two-and-a-half hours. The film is truly emotionally exhausting, but, fortunately, never feels exploitative.
Moving beyond Iñárritu’s knack for pathos, the cinematography is also absolutely stunning. Filmed on-location in Barcelona, the camera skillfully captures the lives and lifestyles of the poor in the Spanish city who try and scrape together whatever they can to survive. Lit with a collection of blues and greens, the lens conveys as much emotion as the story and characters its filming. Even the camera’s movement is expressive, often only giving the audience a glimpse at he most powerful part of a scene, almost teasing them before the big reveal.
Thanks in large to the darkness of its subject matter and unremitting nature, there are bound to be plenty of people turned off by this film, and, frankly, it’s understandable. Alejandro González Iñárritu asks a lot from his audience but with reciprocation comes reward. Mixing a phenomenal performance by Javier Bardem – one that’s even more powerful than the one that won him an Oscar back in 2008 – with stunning visuals and a story sharp enough to make you bleed, Biutiful is truly an incredible piece of cinema.
Reviewed By: Eric Eisenberg