2011-07-21 16:15
What it's about:

Biutiful is a love story between a father and his children. This is the journey of Uxbal, a conflicted man who struggles to reconcile fatherhood, love, spirituality, crime, guilt and mortality amidst the dangerous underworld of modern Barcelona. His livelihood is earned out of bounds, his sacrifices for his children know no bounds. Like life itself, this is a circular tale that ends where it begins. As fate encircles him and thresholds are crossed, a dim, redemptive road brightens, illuminating the inheritances bestowed from father to child, and the paternal guiding hand that navigates life's corridors, whether bright, bad or 'biutiful'. 

What we thought:

Those concerned that a 2 1/2 hour movie titled Biutiful might bear some of the attributes typically characterised as "pretentious" will not be reassured by the opening: whispered dialogue, with the camera trained only on two sets of intertwined hands, and the subsequent scene in which an unknown figure informs that when owls die, "they spit hairballs out of their beaks."

You know it's weighty stuff, indeed, when we're talking about owl hairballs.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has always driven headlong into gritty depictions of pain and tragedy. With handheld camera and a brooding artist's mandate, he revels in peering into the depths and brandishing his seriousness.

Following the visceral triptychs Amores Perros, 21 Grams and the Oscar-nominated Babel, Biutiful is Inarritu's fourth feature but his first without his former screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga, with whom he fell out.

For the first time, Inarritu tells the story linearly, but he has kept the interweaving multiculturalism, focusing on the poor side of Barcelona. And he focuses on one character: Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a kind of black-market middle man for a Chinese sweatshop and Senegalese street vendors.

Uxbal learns that he's fatally ill and soon to die, a predicament made all the more awkward because of his two young children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella). (The movie's title comes from his son's misspelling in a drawing.) Their mother, Uxbal's ex-wife (Maricel Alvarez), is manic depressive and untrustworthy.

A mystic friend tells Uxbal to get his affairs in order, and much of Biutiful is Uxbal badly attempting to ready himself and those around him for his exit.

Bardem, with a mane of hair and a heavy weariness, carries the film entirely. He messily tries to balance morality with money and his children's welfare with that of the immigrants he's exploiting.

Usually, his better intentions backfire. He forgives his ex-wife and, seeing a possible caretaker for the children, and cautiously allows her back into the family - a futile prospect.

He likewise attempts to buy heaters for the basement where the Chinese workers sleep on the floor, but that small gesture, too, turns to tragedy.

There's a great helplessness to Biutiful, an impossible struggle to be decent, to leave the world improved.

In talking about the film, Inarritu has invoked Kurosawa's Ikiru (To Live); one of the more inspirational and glorious films about life and death. The Mexican director (who wrote the film with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone) similarly binds his existentialism with ethics, but doesn't come anywhere near Kurosawa's hard wisdom.

Inarritu is as visually talented as any filmmaker working today, and Biutiful is relentlessly detailed. But it's also leaden and contrived, particularly in its half-hearted stabs at mystical flourishes that feel out of place.

A film about death is really in itself a worthy undertaking, but Inarritu tries to juggle fatherhood, divorce, business ethics and ghosts. It's mountains to heap on an actor, and truly remarkable that Bardem manages it so beautifully.

A weighty, laborious, yet detailed film with an outstanding performance provided by Javier Bardem.
Read more on:    javier bardem  |  movies

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