Movie review: Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful, starring Javier Bardem (with trailer video)

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Bardem plays Uxbal, a tangential player in Barcelona’s criminal underworld, who works as a middleman between the owners of a Chinese sweatshop, their quasi-slave labor and the cops. He wrangles African youth who vend the bootleg DVDs and handbags the sweatshop produces, supplies undocumented labor to construction sites and bribes the cops to limited effect. People rely on Uxbal, they trust him, and he is ultimately not worthy of this trust. It’s not that he’s a bad dude, it’s just that the reality of his life and the choices he is forced to make are constantly conspiring against him.

Watching Biutiful I was reminded of American films of the early 1970s set in New York City. There’s a grittiness to the Barcelona streets that shares a kinship with the Big Apple in films like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy, though Biutiful is not concerned with homicidal maniacs or male prostitutes. The environments in the film, including many exterior shots of massive cranes and smokestacks belching out poison, and interiors of apartments that Travis Bickle would have turned down, lend a feeling of inescapable sadness and doom.

Through it all is Javier Bardem, in a performance that Sean Penn has called the best by an actor since Brando in Last Tango In Paris. While I won’t go that far, Bardem does deliver a vivid and heartbreaking performance. It’s so good that I kind of wish I hadn’t seen it. It’s going to be a tough one to shake.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu enjoys complex narratives (à la Babel), and here he tells a long (nearly two-and-a-half-hour) sordid tale that touches on crime, poverty, parenting, mental illness and even the supernatural. It all adds up to a crushing film experience, one I’m not sure many moviegoers are going to be willing to endure. It’s the odd movie that inspires both admiration and disgust. As it stands, Biutiful is the best movie I’ve ever seen that you couldn’t pay me to watch again.

Some friends and I were recently listing the saddest movies we’d ever seen, and I didn’t really have one. My disposition falls on the happy-go-lucky side, and I tend to avoid anything that will send me into spirals of depression. I say that having just watched Biutiful, a Spanish-language import from director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams), in which Javier Bardem plays a devoted father of two who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and spends his last months on earth squirreling away ill-gotten cash so his kids won’t starve when he’s gone. Wait, it gets worse.

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