Like a grease-stained fog, misery descends on Barcelona and the life of one of its anonymous inhabitants, Uxbal (Javier Bardem). This man’s life is a fractured mess; a puzzle reduced to a jagged, tortured essence, his daily existence a relentless grind that becomes the source of copious bleeding.
Masterful Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – now a richly deserving two-time Oscar recipient – was working for the first time here without regular collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. He quickly initiates us into his oppressively bleak worldview but it reveals a tone we’re familiar with. Anyone who braved his second film 21 Grams (2003) will know of the void into which his characters are swallowed as they struggle for grace and comprehension.
With Biutiful (2010), Bardem fortifies his reputation as cinema’s most compelling presence, pouring all of Uxbal’s anguish and pain into his devastating portrayal. Encased in sunless skies and drab interiors, Uxbal is like a bull chasing phantom movements along the streets of Pamplona. Inarritu’s unnerving gaze is unremitting; there is room to manoeuvre but little in which to entertain the possibility of escape. A spiritual dimension occasionally intrudes upon proceedings; Uxbal is either cursed with the ability to perceive troubled spirits of the dead or the ability to convince vulnerable outsiders of his extrasensory perception.
As a defining medical judgement descends with the weight of a soothsayer’s final proclamation, Uxbal tries to juggle the various strands of his life, including dodgy dealings with illegal African workers he has doling out low-grade drugs. In conjunction with his brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) he has further trouble brewing with the equally illegal Chinese labour crew he’s using to produce cheap factory gear. Yet it’s difficult to hate this man who has his childrens’ best interests at heart. He valiantly tries to organise a stable domestic existence for them whilst fending off the self-pitying advances of his self-destructive, bi-polar ex-wife Marambra (a gutsy Maricel Alvarez).
Biutiful offers the impression of a man being sucked into a whirlpool with his arms tied behind his back. Through the elaborate, dense layers of bleakness, a humanistic flicker keeps us subtly entranced in a view of Barcelona that the city’s tourism bureau will be desperate to negate. This will be, at around 135 minutes, a tough slog for even the most hardened of cinemagoers, but Biutiful is a powerful, unforgettable, almost transcendent experience.