Too often good directors are swallowed up into their film’s subject matter, abandoning reason for emotional results. Having a bleak and grim attitude throughout a film is fine as long as it’s balanced with some form of hope or at least a general force of good trying to prevail. Schindler’s List is an example of a film that transcends its dark roots about a great man during a horrible time in history. Biutiful is a movie torn between what it wants to be and what it really is; a flawed movie with a fascinating central performance that is so subtle in its approach to human connection, it deserves better support.
Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a single father with two kids, a small moldy apartment and a bipolar ex-wife. He’s involved in a criminal organization that sells counterfeit purses and clothing to wealthy pedestrians in Barcelona. Uxbal is in charge of an anxious group of illegal African immigrants and he gets his stock of goods made by two Chinese men who run their own sweatshop, complete with harsh working and living conditions. Uxbal discovers he is dying of cancer and has only months to live. It’s interesting to note that a doctor is never seen giving him the unfortunate news, only Uxbal’s facial reaction and confusion is seen. His time at the doctors earlier indicates how his infrequent trips for checkups may have had an influence on his sickness, however little screen time or major thought revolves around this matter as Uxbal accepts his fate.
It’s obvious that Uxbal’s life is in complete shambles even without his cancer. The only part of his day that he seems to enjoy involves his two children. His relationship with them is unforced and touching, their presence is the only earnest experiences in the film. Uxbal’s ex-wife, Marambra, is a woman who has fallen apart physically and emotionally after she left her husband and hasn’t it gotten together since. She obviously loves Uxbal still but relies too much on the past and what once was. Her character disappears towards the end of the film, leaving her fate to be determined and wasting an opportunity for redemption.
Biutiful is about Uxbal’s life and his final weeks left before his time is up. He is a good man trying to survive even if it involves criminal activity and well-intentioned mistakes. The problem lies in trying to discover his intentions without being derailed by events and side stories that have no emotional significance. Uxbal’s relationship with his wild brother and his dead father being cremated appear throughout the film but seem to have no impact on Uxbal at all, they don’t evoke a response from him that shows how he feels.
We don’t need to know why Uxbal isn’t close with his brother but if there is no conclusion between the two why involve their relationship at all? Same goes for the opportunity to establish the connection between Uxbal and death. Multiple times in the film it’s implied that Uxbal has the ability to reach the deceased and help them pass on. He goes to a funeral and helps a grieving family with their dead son and occasionally sees glimpses of death and the members involved. But again, it doesn’t affect Uxbal in any way to be deemed necessary. More attention and depth should have been focused on Ige, the wife of Uxbal’s friend who worked with him selling on the streets and was deported for possessing drugs. Ige spends much of her time with Uxbal during his final days and has a connection to him and his children. Her story has tremendous power with limited screen time and Ige’s character has such an important decision during the climax that it actually gives the movie a sense of hope and compassion.
There is too much holding the film back from becoming what it wants to be. Underdeveloped side plots and unnecessary characters (I haven’t even touched upon the homosexual Chinese men who Uxbal works for) detract the experience which ultimately depends upon Javier Bardem’s character. Bardem is a master of sorrowful expression and he conveys a man who is carrying a heavy burden in such bad conditions but somehow never really falls apart during his rush to settle his post living arrangements. His Oscar nomination is undoubtedly deserved, he lifts the movie above its grim tone by combining ingredients of a man who is incredibly human no matter the given circumstances. The scene during his daughter’s birthday celebration where Bardem gives his children a final gift is quietly heartbreaking, he is a force that sweeps you along the film. Most blame for the movie’s faults are a result of its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. As with his last film, Babel, González gets swept up in human struggle that’s conveyed in such a pretentious manner he focuses on the struggle and not the human side as opposed to the reflective way he handled his best movie, 2003’s 21 Grams.
Biutiful is crowded with problems but emerges with a main performance that is worth seeing just to reaffirm how Bardem is a versatile actor capable of transforming into a believable and sympathetic human being. Uxbal deserves a better movie, more heartfelt and composed especially when the subject matter involves the main character dying of cancer. Grim can be good but too much is just gratuitous.
Biutiful was released on February 11, 2011 in Canada.