Relentlessly downbeat and pessimistic, Biutiful is a strangely unfulfilling and aimless film that is only mitigated (albeit significantly) by a truly affecting performance from Javier Bardem. He plays Uxbal, a divorced father in Barcelona raising two children in downtrodden conditions who learns that he has terminal cancer. Mired in a number of criminal schemes in which he is seen as influential by the illegal-immigrant perpetrators but over which he has little control, Uxbal struggles to eek out an existence for his family while harbouring tremendous guilt for the fate of the outlaw minorities (to whom he is pointedly the only supportive Spaniard in the film).
Many things unravel for Uxbal in Biutiful, including the relationship with his estranged wife, the shady construction deal he has taken part in by arranging to provide Chinese slave-labour to plow over a graveyard holding his father’s coffin, a Senegalese fake-goods racket, and his debilitating illness. But there are no peaks and troughs, only an unbroken stream of increasingly desperate situations; each scenario Uxbal is involved in fails to pan out the way he intended, and he keeps running out of options to provide long-term security to his children who will, given their mother’s bipolar disorder, be practically left orphans after his impending death.
In essence, Biutiful is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s ode to fathers and fatherhood, exemplified by the person of Uxbal, who is the only father present for his children and performing his duties: the Chinese and the Senagalese contingents both have a mother raising a son on her own, while Uxbal’s own father abandoned the family early. Yet Uxbal’s love for his son and daughter is biblical in its sheer sacrifice and commitment, working right up to the moment of his expiration to ensure that they are taken care of, if not permanently, then at least for as long as the Euros he scraped together allow. Inarritu weaves his usual multi-stranded storytelling around this, but many of the sub-narratives just aren’t very interesting, and some are downright unnecessary: the gay Chinese couple, the scene at a mildly debauched nightclub, the seances et al do not add much to the story and feel jarring. Another problem is Innaritu’s unwillingness to offer any redemptive moments whatsoever to Uxbal, and the fact that Uxbal’s wretched endeavours to right wrongs and repair damages are essentially futile means that there’s little dividend for the emotional investment audience makes in his travails. You could argue that this allows the movie to retain a kind of hard-hitting, nihilistic power, but the director undermines this by introducing supernaturalism into the narrative and being a little too cute with his visuals. It’s understandable that Inarritu wanted to add a touch of magic and poetry to avoid Biutiful turning into a dolorous kitchen sink melodrama, but it’s an uneasy clash of two very divergent themes and serves only to destabilize what is already an unfocused story.
Barden, however, is a different matter. His performance moves beyond convincing into something approaching hypnotic. His face is so interesting – craggy, rough and wild, yet also very defined, empathetic and mournful, handsome yet retaining important vestiges of the common man. He has to display tenderness and anger, penitence and denial often in same scenes, yet never comes short the whole movie. Reluctantly accepting money from mourners for passing on messages from the deceased, you can see the mixture of sympathy and desperation that shows up on Bardem’s face as pained humiliation. There’s a scene where he sees his father for the first time, exhumed in mummified form and about to be cremated. Rather than sharing his brother’s revulsion, Bardem is fascinated and even happy to meet him after all this time, and the small, shy smile that creeps up on his face as he approaches his father’s corpse is great acting indeed. These moments would have seemed hammy or cloying with lesser actors, but Bardem’s extraordinary face forces you to share his extreme emotions with him, and thankfully Biutiful contains many such moments.
Overall, although Biutiful is much like Uxbal in having a lot of heart and no little drama, there is a distance between the film and the audience caused by Inarritu’s lack of focus and directorial indiscipline. Artfully shot and containing moments of lyrical beauty, Biutiful nevertheless felt like entering a long tunnel which kept getting darker, and ending before the train came out on the other side. Aside from Bardem’s performance, the film doesn’t offer us much to take away.